Are you misaligned?

By Shonda Smitherman  ·  Jun 20, 2023

Member tells story of how she waded through the health care system to get an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment of a condition that was causing her pain, discomfort

Read more about your vertebrae C1 and C2.

Health care in America needs to change.

I know this as a nurse practitioner and recently experienced it as a patient.

As a country, we spend more per capita on health care than any other industrialized nation does, yet remain at the bottom in health care outcomes.

U.S. health care is dictated by insurance, documentation, administration, and time constraints. When you are expected to see every patient in a 10- to 15-minute time slot, looking for the root cause of an illness is not feasible. While in college, we did not focus so much on the breakdown of the structural foundation. Rather, we focused on symptom and disease management. We were told that “if you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras.” In other words, don’t think outside the box.

I encountered this attitude during an illness of my own.

As an active, underweight female in my early 40s, I thought I was balanced until I had significant neck and back pain. I experienced horrific symptoms over several years, including severe fatigue, headaches, neck and low back pain, joint pain, food and chemical sensitivities, brain fog, anxiety, depression, muscle weakness, and neuropathy.

Spinal MRIs revealed significant degeneration, stenosis, Tarlov cysts, and bone marrow edema, but there was no mention of a misalignment. It didn’t make sense. Visits to neurologists and other practitioners revealed no answers. I suggested to one physician that I might have one of the Ehlers-Danlos syndromes—a hereditary connective tissue disorder. They told me to stop looking down rabbit holes. I might as well have been told to stop looking for zebras.

I visited several other physicians, including a neuro-ophthalmologist and an optometrist because of problems with my eyes. I also saw a neurosurgeon, who noticed one jugular vein was significantly larger than the other but told me it was because I was born that way.

But I knew something was very wrong, feeling as if I might die. As I cried out to the Lord for healing and a way forward, He made it clear to me that my brain was not getting sufficient blood flow.

A few weeks later, a friend found a practice called Caring Medical in Florida that focused on chronic pain conditions caused by cervical spine instability and that specialized in prolotherapy treatment. After a review of their website, I sensed this was where I would find answers. Because of the freedom I have to seek the treatment I need through Samaritan Ministries, I was able to visit this clinic.

Through digital motion X-ray, cone beam CT, and jugular, vagus nerve, and optic nerve ultrasounds, I received answers: I had cervical instability. My upper cervical spine was in the shape of an S with the atlas (C1 vertebra) and axis (C2 vertebra) misaligned (see explanation on page 10) and my vagus nerves had degenerated. Such a misalignment had not been reported from readings of previous X-rays or MRIs but only with this round of imaging done at Caring Medical.

Revealingly, my jugular vein showed no blood flow to my brain on the left when my head was only slightly turned to the left. There was decreased blood flow on the right, as the jugular vein was having to wrap around the abnormal shape of my cervical spine. I also had optic nerve sheath swelling in each eye indicating a lack of blood flow and obstructed cerebrospinal fluid.

Another assessment revealed instability in additional joints including my pelvis, sacroiliac joints, lumbar spine, pubis symphysis, and hips. Further testing also revealed a Chiari malformation, where the brainstem slides down out of the skull due to surrounding ligaments failing to support it.

As I broke down in tears, my doctor suggested people who have necks that look similar to mine feel as if they are going to die, just like I did. And finally, I knew the root cause: hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos.

Although the syndrome is hereditary, I am the first to receive the diagnosis in my family. As it turns out, I am a “zebra,” as the Ehlers-Danlos Society suspects the prevalence of this disorder to be 1 in 5,000 people.

I was referred to an upper cervical specialist for manual adjustments of the C1 and C2 vertebrae. I have started treatments at Caring Medical with curve correction treatments and prolotherapy injections to strengthen the ligaments in my body. The treatments are very painful and work to create inflammation in the ligaments, causing them to grip tighter and better support the structures of the body. But I am improving and actually feel as if I’m starting to live now!

As the Lord rebuilds me, I praise Him for my Samaritan membership. Each time I called Samaritan, the advocate always closed in prayer with my permission. On one particular day, I spoke to an advocate named Amber and shared a portion of my long health journey. She reassured me regarding the sharing of the treatments. At the end of our conversation, she prayed with me and spoke the words my heart needed to hear, “Our God sees you, He hasn’t forgotten about you.”

It has also been so encouraging to receive Shares with uplifting messages from other members. It becomes personal when you receive a handwritten letter from someone you’ve never met but who is praying for your healing. One card I received reminded me the Lord is rebuilding my structure as the words read, “With a prayer for God’s presence to refresh you, His healing to restore you, and His strength to renew you.”

I truly am being refreshed, restored, and renewed.

The information provided in this article is for educational purposes and is not meant as medical advice. It is the opinion of the writer. The information is not meant to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health professional.

Samaritan Ministries member Shonda Smitherman of East Bend, North Carolina, has been a family nurse practitioner for 23 years. She enjoys her work in primary/urgent care as well as at the Compassion Care Center, a local pregnancy resource center. She has been married to Maurice for 27 years. They have three daughters: Sailor, Sydney, and Sanibell.