Fortunately for me, I’ve know Erica Meloe for years. From time to time, for no apparent reason, I start to have a lot of pain in my neck—or more rarely, shoulder. Usually this pain goes away on its own, but there have been occasions when the pain was bad and didn’t seem to be on the mend.
In those cases, I turn to the brilliant, super-effective Erica Meloe. She’s a physical therapist who has made such a difference for me—and for my husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, among others.
She really understands the body in an extraordinary way.
She just wrote a terrific book, Why Do I Hurt? Discover the Surprising Connections that Cause Physical Pain–and What to Do About Them.
I’m particularly interested in this book because I’ve developed a minor preoccupation with the subject of pain (a frightening subject, but interesting).
I couldn’t wait to talk to Erica about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Erica: I have been doing a lot of Spinning at Soul Cycle these days and I have never felt more exhilarated! I believe that movement in whatever form, is good for your body, mind and soul. I get an enormous amount of inspiration from exercise. Whether it is the community, the movement or just the feeling of sweating through a good workout, it stirs up my creative juices and I feel more alive. Another habit that I do almost every night is read. I am a huge Jane Austen fan, and try to read something from the Regency period fairly often. It really grounds me.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Erica: This is a great question! The first thought that comes to mind is, “That it doesn’t just happen to you, you have to create your own happiness.” I think that our definition of happiness changes, as we grow older. And one of the biggest lessons for me is that what I think will make me happy, actually doesn’t make me happy.
We think if “we get or achieve” certain things or goals, that is the ultimate in happiness. And what I have found, is that it is the little things that make me happy and fill me with gratitude. For example, going to see “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” with my niece, learning something new, or going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the “Versailles” exhibit, this is what makes me happy.
Professionally, helping a patient to problem solve their persistent pain and get them moving better is so rewarding. And even more recently, seeing my book Why Do I Hurt? finally published!
Making beautiful memories is what happiness is all about for me.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or others – most?
Erica: What continues to intrigue and motivate me to search for more evidence is that the relationship of our body to our mind is more than just a tagline, it is a real thing. The body has amazing healing powers if we only tap into our own internal resources.
As a physical therapist, I see so many people affected by persistent pain as is evidenced by the rising rates of consumer opioid abuse. When someone has persistent pain, more often than not, the source of that pain lies somewhere other than their symptomatic body part. Our bodies are such great compensators, that long after an injury or painful part has healed, there are some people who still experience pain.
What surprises many of my patients is the fact that we also need to treat at least one or two other regions of the body in order for them to achieve any long lasting change. That is the epitome of treating the source versus just treating the symptom.
What I also find extremely fascinating is that when you give someone a diagnosis, in my field for example, like a “herniated disc” or “your hip or knee is bone-on-bone,” this can be seen as a placebo or alternatively as a nocebo, which can be detrimental. The delivery of a diagnosis to a patient is the most important piece in health care delivery.
I will stick to physical therapy, as it is my scope of practice, but think about this: “You have bone-on-bone in your hip which is seen on your most recent x-ray and you need a hip replacement.” Versus, “You have some degenerative changes in your hip which are very common as you grow older. We call them the ‘kisses of time.’ You can rehab this or at some point in the future, you may choose to have a very common surgical procedure called a hip replacement. Your CHOICE.”
I believe the first one is a nocebo and the second one is a placebo. Being given a choice versus being told what to do has an enormous impact on how we process pain and ultimately in how we manage it. A health care professional’s words matter.
Gretchen: What advice do you find yourself giving over and over? If you could wave a magic wand so that just about everyone followed certain habits or practices, what would you choose?
Erica: I constantly find myself telling people that our body makes unconscious choices in how we move. We resort to old movement strategies or habits that our body sees as “normal.” Our bodies take the path of least resistance until we run out of options. We run a certain way (and we have been running that way for years) until we change something, like our environment, our shoes, our running pattern, and then breakdown occurs. It can manifest as fatigue, pain or lack of endurance as examples.
Our old habit or strategy that has reached it’s “buckle point” as I like to call it, is now something that needs to be re-patterned or re-trained. I always tell my patients that we need to develop a new habit or a new normal. And that changes depending on the amount of load, stress or activity that we put on our bodies.
Being open minded to developing new movement patterns, practices or habits is what makes us unique. If I could wave a magic wand (and I would use Hermione’s wand!) it would be to develop many habits or practices. The body responds really well to variance in the sense that if we vary our movements, positions and activities and make that a habit, our bodies would thank us!
Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Erica: I thought I would be an Upholder when I took the quiz but my results showed that I am an Obliger! I am working at meeting my inner expectations and learning how to say “no,” more often! I do believe that when you work with patients and are in a healing profession, there is a tendency towards meeting others’ needs ahead of your own.
Gretchen: Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Erica: “Faith and Courage” and more recently, “Bring the Joy.”
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Erica: As an Obliger, I tend to over-commit and take on too many obligations. Often times, I find myself saying no to certain things because of a deadline or expectation on my part that I have to get something done.
Gretchen: In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
Erica: Yes, thank you! The biggest misconception is that physical therapy is a uniform profession. That is, the same results will be achieved with any physical therapist. This is simply not true.
Practices, techniques, and philosophies differ. I have heard many stories where patients have not gotten the results they wanted from a medical provider, but have achieved noticeable benefits when they see a good PT who looks at the body differently from a holistic and integrated perspective.
So I would encourage all patients to try a new physical therapist if they have not gotten the results they wanted. Their experience may be vastly different with someone else.