hope, healing, self-healing, functional medicine

The Hope for Healing: Where to Turn When Your Doctors Can’t Help You

Sue’s Story

Sue had almost given up. Her symptoms began abruptly one summer after returning home from a camping trip with her family. It started with vertigo that became so severe she couldn’t turn her head while lying in bed. She developed pain, numbness, and tingling all over her body. She felt like she was trembling from the inside, but no one could see this. She had headaches, muscle soreness, weakness, and exhaustion. Her hearing became intensified—everything around her seemed much louder than usual. Her family doctor could find nothing wrong. Likewise, the doctors at a major University medical center near her home could find nothing wrong with her, and she was given no options for going forward.

After two years of searching for answers unsuccessfully, with worsening symptoms, with people questioning the truth of her story, she felt despair. Her doctors lost the central threads of her story as she was parceled out to specialists who focused on just a single aspect of her—the neurologist looked at the neurological symptoms, the gastroenterologist looked at her gut symptoms, the rheumatologist looked at her muscles and joints. None of her symptoms fit neatly into an organ-system-based disease category. What was wrong with her? Her life became consumed with finding ways to cope with debilitating symptoms, and to find the energy to keep up with her life as a mom, a wife, and someone who had been an active, vibrant person. Sue came to see me after being referred by a counselor who knew of my successes in treating chronic complex illness.

In Sue’s case, it turned out not to be rocket science that led to the answers she needed and the return to vibrant health. The key was careful consideration of her story and all of its elements. It was believing that everything she was experiencing was true and had meaning, and putting all the pieces together. Sue had Lyme disease. Though it had gone undiagnosed for nearly three years by the time I got to see her, she responded well to therapy, her symptoms resolved, and she got her life back. In many ways she is much better than she was before because she learned self-care at the deepest level–strategies she will benefit from for the rest of her life. She also claimed the spiritual journey that was imbedded in her illness—the inner journey that led her to discover her true self and her strength.

The Lesson

Sue’s story is all too common. The lesson from her story for us all is to never give up searching for answers no matter how many doors close—there is always an explanation and a solution. Sue was simply not able to get the answers she needed from the doctors she initially sought help from because their focus was all in the wrong place. They tried to reduce her complex experience down to simple symptoms and solutions, when what she needed was someone to see the big picture of her illness, to take time to listen to her whole story, and approach her problems at a root-cause level.

Conventional Medicine Treats Acute Illness By Design

Conventional western medicine is a rock star at emergency care. There’s no place I’d rather be to receive treatment for a catastrophic illness or trauma. If I have broken my leg or am having a heart attack, I want the best that conventional medical system has to offer to help me out. I want the advanced diagnostic imaging and state-of-the-art drugs to keep me safe and alive in the acute setting of that emergency. That’s what they are good at.

Our medical system was not designed to promote health, prevent disease, or address the puzzle of chronic, complex illness. This mismatch between what our medical system has to offer and the needs of people suffering with chronic illness—people seeking answers and who are ripe for healing—leads to discouragement, hopelessness, and unnecessary suffering. I have worked with countless clients who recount the story of having been told there was nothing that could be done for them, or that there was nothing actually wrong with them, or that they were making things up. The loss of hope that these messages engender turn chronic illness into crisis—and it’s wholly unnecessary.

Hold Onto Hope

When the doors of conventional medicine seem to close on you without offering the solutions you desire, the lesson is to hold onto hope. The closing door does not mean there is nothing wrong with you—it simply means you have bumped up against the limitations of your doctors and it’s time to move on to find other perspectives and solutions. You may need a whole team of professionals to help you with the diverse aspects of your health, as many of us do. This takes commitment to yourself and willingness to explore other options—perhaps with perspectives about healing that are new to you.

My Guidelines for How to Build Your Healing Team

  1. Choose your practitioner: peruse the list of practitioners below and choose one that sounds like they may be a good fit. Find out who in your community is trained in the approach or strategy. Perhaps friends, co-workers, or acquaintances can give you first-hand references. Look at their websites: what resonates with you?
  2. There’s no substitute for first-hand experience. Make an appointment with the practitioner you choose so you can tell your story and listen to their assessment and plan for going forward. Pay close attention to how you feel throughout the encounter. Is this a good fit? Are they listening to you? Do you feel like a partner in this relationship?
  3. Go prepared. More than likely a practitioner who looks at your health story through a wider lens will ask you to fill out extensive health questionnaires. But not always. Do yourself and your practitioner a huge favor: carefully type out a chronological history of your entire health story (from birth) and include all major life events. Create a list of your medications and supplements and keep a careful diet diary for at least three days.
  4. Be prepared to fire them. You must go in hopeful but also discerning and ready to change direction if necessary. This is the most important team you will ever work with. They must work for you and be willing to partner with you. It is important that you feel completely comfortable and on-board with the approach to your health they propose.
  5. Be prepared to add additional members to your healthcare team. My team consists of a physician, two chiropractors (they are good at different things), a massage therapist, physical therapist, and energy medicine practitioner. They all approach my health and healing from different perspectives, are good at different things, and their work is synergistic. As you identify areas of your health you’d like to work on or which would be best served by putting someone else on your team, look around and try them out. This process may take years and go through many changes.
  6. Look at their credentials: always look for a practitioner who is both licensed and certified to the highest level within their profession. This does not, however, guarantee that they are actually good at what they do. Excellent references and word-of-mouth referrals are also important.

Your Healthcare Practitioner Options

Functional Medicine (FM):

FM practitioners seek to discover who you are—all of you—to understand you and your illness at the deepest possible level. FM practitioners partner with you to explore your symptoms, illness, and health goals within the context of your life story, your unique genetics and systems biology, your lifestyle habits, your mind and emotions, and the myriad environmental factors that influence your health and healing. This approach allows FM practitioners to develop root-cause level solutions that may include tools found in conventional medicine, in addition to strategies to optimize nutrition and all aspects of your lifestyle to address the fundamental imbalances that exist.

How to utilize a FM Practitioner: Any physician trained in FM will take a more comprehensive approach to your health and healing. If there is a FM primary care option in your community, by all means give them a try. Many FM practitioners work on a consultative basis and do not provide primary care. Consider working with them for any persistent symptoms or chronic complex illness that continues to trouble you in spite of your doctor’s best efforts.

Functional Nutritionist (FN):

These professionals understand the power of food in healing. They are trained to use a FM approach to understand illness and dysfunction, and use food and lifestyle as primary tools for restoring balance and relieving symptoms through root-cause level interventions. Functional Nutritionists often work in conjunction with FM practitioners, expanding the work they do with you by teaching you the fundamentals of food preparation and provide you with individualized therapeutic meal plans

How to utilize a FN: Since you are what you eat, anyone desiring deeper knowledge about using food to optimize health or to heal specific conditions will benefit from the expertise of a FN. They will provide support for everything from what to eat, therapeutic food plans, recipes, cooking instruction, and how to utilize your local grocery shopping options.

Integrative Medicine Practitioner (IMP):

These professionals are trained to integrate conventional medical approaches with modalities from other traditions. These may include nutrition, herbal therapies, mind-body therapies, and lifestyle modification. Many IMPs are also trained in FM, but not all. While IMPs are generally more holistic in their approach to healthcare, some may be practicing the conventional disease-oriented model, simply using “green” medicine as a substitute for drugs. While possibly safer, this approach does not necessarily address the root cause of illness.

How to utilize an IMP: I would recommend that you look for a practitioner who is certified in IMP as well as FM. FM practitioners already practice IM, but many IMPs are not trained in the FM approach. An IMP may be a good choice for you as a primary care provider.

Naturopathic Medicine (ND):

ND practitioners also take a holistic view of human beings and seek to restore balance by using the power of nature. Their work emphasizes prevention, treatment, and achieving optimal health through support and strengthening of your inherent capacity to self-heal. They are particularly well versed in the use of herbal medicine and nutrition.

How to utilize an ND: ND’s can often provide the same comprehensive, root-cause level understanding of your health and healing as FM practitioners. The major limitations are that they are not licensed by every state, are often not trained to treat more complex illnesses, and, unless they are also MDs or DOs, they are not able to write prescriptions or order many diagnostic tests. Work with an ND if you would like to focus on therapeutic nutrition, nutritional supplements, and herbal therapies to optimize health and treat common conditions.

Acupuncturists/Chinese Medicine:

This thousands-year-old holistic healing tradition works with the energy system of the body to correct imbalances and relieve symptoms. Acupuncture is the primary technique of Chinese Medicine specialists in which they stimulate specific points on the body by inserting needles through the skin to influence energy flow through the body. They may also use herbal medicine, mind-body practices, tai chi, and lifestyle strategies.

How to utilize an acupuncturist: They can treat most common conditions and, in my experience, are especially good at addressing fatigue, pain, and stress.


Chiropractors work with the structural aspects of the body, most notably the spine, to release impingements that block nervous system and energy flow through the body. They can help with pain, muscle injury, and posture.

How to utilize a chiropractor: If pain, weakness, or postural imbalance is part of your health picture, a chiropractor can help.

Physical Therapy (PT):

These folks are human anatomy geniuses who, through their understanding of structure and function, can facilitate healing, pain relief, and restoration of function after injury or surgery.

How to utilize a PT: Always include a PT on your team for rehab after serious injuries and surgery. Choose someone who uses manual therapy modalities in addition to therapeutic exercise, stretching, and postural work.

Energy Medicine (EM):

Energy Medicine practitioners harness the power of the energy body for addressing physical illness and disturbances of the mind and emotions. EM is employed by a diverse range of healing traditions, including acupuncture, yoga, qi gong, healing touch, and Reiki. Because empathy is a vital source of energy exchange between practitioners and their clients, I would submit that all caring practitioners are using the power of energy in their healing work.

How to utilize an EM practitioner: EM can augment the work you do with any other healthcare team member. I find it particularly useful for addressing pain and fatigue, and for providing insight into the deeper levels of meaning that often accompany illness.

Body-Mind Psychotherapy:

These practitioners understand the deep interconnection that exists between the body and the mind. They understand the tendency of humans to disconnect from the body as a way to avoid the discomfort of certain emotions, feelings, and physical sensations. They work to guide people back into the body—a process and state referred to as embodiment—to engage with the sensations and use the wisdom contained within them for guidance and healing. Techniques explored may include yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and self-care.

How to utilize a body-mind psychotherapist: These professionals can provide supportive care for a wide range of mood, cognitive, and behavior disorders. They can also teach mindfulness strategies and help clients use the power of their minds to reduce symptoms and treat illness.

Massage Therapy:

Massage therapists work directly with your muscles to release tension and clear blockages to healthy function. Therapeutic massage reduces the muscle tightness that contributes to pain, while downshifting stress through the relaxation response.

How to utilize a massage therapist: Most of us can benefit from massage as part of our routine self-care strategy. I see mine monthly. In addition, they can be called in to address acute issues that arise with muscle tightness, minor injury, or stress.



Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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