A painful case of studentitis

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By Dana Lacey

Watch your back. You could be the next victim of studentitis, a non-discriminating condition that can affect how you work, play and study. It can attack you anytime, anywhere.

You won’t find it listed in medical texts, there’s no rubber bracelet to prove you care and there’s no foundation dedicated to finding a cure.

It’s the stiff neck from falling asleep in lecture. The sore shoulders caused by slouching or spending too much time in front of the computer. It’s tension headaches from looming deadlines and rising tuition fees, it’s knee pain from standing behind a cash register, it’s back tension from overloaded backpacks. Anyone can be a victim.

Before you conclude that I made up studentitis, I didn’t. My massage therapist at the Recreation and Athletics Centre (RAC) did. And though studentitis is not a recognized medical condition, it still affects the livelihood of many students. Up until a few weeks ago, I relieved the suffering with 20 minute massages, covered by the Ryerson health plan — then I was told the RAC was going to stop offering 20 minute massages. And I panicked.

I have suffered from this pain-in-the-neck for years. It comes from the one-size-fits-all chairs in class and the three-plus hour lectures that only give you 10 minutes of freedom. For me, the discomfort has become chronic pain. Sometimes it’s hard to understand what chronic pain is, because it can be different for everyone. In my case, it means a constant dull ache and tension across my neck, back and shoulders; the kind you’d usually feel after a day of moving furniture.

You learn to live with it. But on days where I have to sit in class or at my computer (read: everyday), it’s worse. When the barometre drops or it’s raining out, the pain rises to a screaming knot in my shoulders, impossible to ignore. I groan like a grumpy old man and bemoan my achin’ body. I used to blame it on sports and bad luck, but last year my doctor told me it was scoliosis — which, it turns out, isn’t a disease sailor’s catch overseas, but it does mean my spine isn’t curved quite right. A lot of people have it. The tiniest imperfection causes a chain reaction where some muscles work overtime while others do nothing. Insert pain here.

My doctor gave me a prescription for massage therapy and I wondered how some luxurious back rub was going to even touch the kind of pain I was feeling. For years I’d tried everything — Robaxacet, Tiger Balm, cold packs, small children walking on my back — but found no relief. My second worry was how I was going to pay for something like this. I’m covered by Ryerson’s health plan, which means I’m entitled to 500 massage-dollars a year with a limit of $25 a visit. I shopped around and found that the only place in Toronto that charged that low was the RAC. Twenty minutes for $25.

My first visit to the clinic was nerve-wracking (you want me to take off my clothes?) but I laid down on the table anyways. Lights were dimmed, soft music played (flutes, I think) and soundproof walls kept out the sounds of students running laps. I almost fell asleep. Enter Mary Gardiner, one of the RAC’s three registered massage therapists. I’d filled out forms that told her what hurt, but after a few minutes of poking and prodding she told me where the pain was.

“Your spine is curved,” she said, explaining which muscles were being strained by pointing them out on the diagrams of skinless people on her wall. Then, she got her hands on me.

Far from the sexy massages you see in movies, my first 20 minutes with Mary hurt like hell. She was kneading my flesh to a bright pink, getting the blood flowing and warming up my muscles so they’d be ready for manipulation. She used her hands, fingers and elbows to reach the different layers of muscles in my back (there’s 5 to get through). I gritted my teeth in pain until she told me to start taking deep breaths, which helped get me through the worst bits as I heard my body snap, crackle and pop. She told me to take an Epson salt bath afterwards, and warned I’d be sore the next day. And I was, but after all I’m used to that. Two weeks later, I was back for more.

I’ve been going almost once a week for more than a year, which has helped me survive through deadlines and thunderstorms. I’m not the only one; 85 per cent of Mary’s clients have similar aches in their neck, shoulders and back. Massage isn’t a cure, but it sure makes those grumpy old man days go by a lot smoother.

A month ago I was half-naked and lying face-down on the table when Mary told me the news. Her hands didn’t stop kneading as she casually said the therapists were getting rid of 20-minute appointments. For a while she’d been encouraging me to book a longer time; she needed more than 20 minutes to attack my pain at the right depth. If she doesn’t have enough time to warm up the muscles, there’s a risk she’d go too deep too fast. Makes sense, but going longer means the cheapest massage is $37.50 for 30 minutes. Mary explained that the price of a 60 minute massage ($75) works out to be the same as three 20-minute massages, and I’d see better results.

The catch is that for students covered under Ryerson’s health plan, a 60-minute massage isn’t the same price. Because of the plan’s per-massage limit, I’d only see a third of the $75 I’d paid up-front. Like any student, I survive all year on a tight budget and even the $12 extras for the 30 minute massage is a luxury I can’t afford.

I asked Dave Dubois, program director of the RAC, why the change was allowed to happen without considering student’s financial needs. Nobody had told him about the axing of 20-minute treatments, and when he asked the RAC’s manager about it she didn’t mention how the changes stuck students in a catch 22: Pay more, or don’t go at all.

“I can’t promise anything,” he told me, “but I’ll see what I can do about getting a discounted price for Ryerson students.” But Dave told me last week there’d be no discount and the changes would stay. He did say that the manager would be willing to work with the insurance company to change our coverge. That’s nice, but Ryerson just signed a five-year contract (which also upped the bill by $100) so we won’t be seeing any changes anytime soon. Dave apologized by saying “I appreciate the financial needs of students, but in this case, I don’t want to jeopardize their safety.”

The RAC’s massage clinic opened in 1993 and has always had 20-minute massages. So has the RAC been putting students at risk or giving half-assed massages for the past 13 years? Hardly.

Jette Henriksen, a registered massage therapist and at Elmcrest College’s Faculty of Massage Therapy, disagrees with the RAC’s therapists. “You can naturally say that an hour massage would be better, but believe me, 20-minute massages can be very effective indeed.” Anne Longman of Centennial College’s massage therapy program agrees, and suggested her student clinic as a cheaper alternative. But because those students aren’t registered massage therapists, treatments done by them aren’t covered at all.

Dr. Teo of Ryerson’s Health Clinic echoed the sentiment (“20 minutes is better than no minutes at all”). Dr. Teo said she has no problem prescribing massages because they help in so many ways; neck, back and shoulder pain, headaches, digestion problems, sports or repetitive strain injuries and the plain ol’ wear and tear of life in the big smoke.

So its been a month since my last massage, during one of the most financially stressful months of the school year. I’m hurting. I make my roommate pull on my arms, (harder! HARDER!) trying to recreate the crrr-ack of ecstasy that Mary does so well. I go away unsatisfied. I probably shouldn’t let people who don’t know what their doing yank on tender muscles, but what other choice do I have? What can I say; I’m addicted to pain relief.

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