Don’t just listen to the experts

storm trooper confused

Yes, even Darth Vader was wrong on some things. (photo by DoodleDeMoon via Flickr)

When you have a problem with your plumbing, you call a plumber. When you have a legal issue, you call a lawyer. When you have a pain or posture issue, you call me (shameless plug).

But getting the help of an expert, especially with your body, doesn’t mean you get to go on auto-pilot. Quite the contrary, you need to make sure you recognize one thing: experts can be wrong.

At least 90% of the people I work with have told me stories of frustration when dealing with former doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists, Rolfers, trainers, acupuncturists, etc. etc. As a patient and client of other experts, I’ve been in the same situation and understand where the frustration comes in.

It comes when the expert refuses to listen to ideas that run counter to their theories about your issues.

Real life example: you have been seeing your doctor for months for pain in the elbows. “Take a stronger anti-inflammatory to reduce the inflammation.” Appointment over.

Or: your back has been hurting for a year, despite doing planks and bosu ball exercises for a year. Your physical therapist says, “Your core is still just not strong enough. Keep doing more planks for longer periods.”

Or: you try twenty acupuncture appointments and there’s been no positive change. “Just a few more sessions will do.”

La la la la -- if I can't hear your problems, you have no problems! (photo by humbert15 via Flickr)

La la la la — if I can’t hear your problems, you have no problems! (photo by humbert15 via Flickr)

It’s not that any of these experts are (necessarily) deceiving you — far from it. I can think of times where I’ve been guilty of this kind of thinking myself. Experts often have the best of intentions, but a lot of times experts (myself included) can get caught in the trap of thinking everything we know from the past is going to apply to everything we see in the future. That kind of thinking doesn’t work for the stock market, and it doesn’t work for  the human body.

In fact, it doesn’t work for a lot of things. There’s a philosophical discussion around the Problem of Induction (follow that link to start down the internet rabbit hole!) which addresses our ability to draw reliable conclusions about reality based on what we observe. Basically, what we think we know can be quite unreliable, and we can’t possibly know how unreliable our knowledge is until we encounter something that challenges our knowledge.

For example (liberally adapted from a book I just read: Fooled by Randomness), let’s say I have pot of 97 red marbles and 3 blue marbles. I tell you to reach into a hole just big enough for your hand (so you can’t see inside) and draw a marble. You reach into the pot and pull out a red one. We repeat. You get another red one. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another.  This goes on for another forty times.

I ask you, “So, what can you tell me about what’s in this pot?”

“It’s a pot of red marbles.”

“How sure are you?”

“Pretty darn sure.”

You’ve come to what most of us would consider a very reasonable conclusion. You’ve drawn umpteen times and all you got was red marbles. But the reality of the situation is that you’ve got a pot of mostly red marbles with some blue ones at the bottom — but you have no clue that they’re there, since you haven’t encountered them yet.

For health experts, it gets very easy to get caught in this same trap of thinking we know everything we need to know. We go to schools that ostensibly teach us “all” that we need to know, we get more training from other experts, and we apply what we’ve learned to our clients/patients. As clients/patients, we expect to be able to say, “this hurts” and have the expert hand us edicts from Heaven that will solve all our worldly problems. But that’s not how you should approach it.

Here’s a really simple example: your neck hurts. Depending on what kind of expert you consult, you might be looking for nerve impingement, disc herniation, fracture of bones in the neck, some kind of bacterial infection, a malignant growth, a subluxed vertebra, strained shoulder musculature, a shoulder that’s positioned poorly, a bad craniosacral rhythm, blocked chi…and whatever other possibilities that I haven’t thought of.

Or for back pain, if we limit it to some of the more popular musculoskeletal theories: your spine is compressed, your discs are bulging, your abs are weak, you have bad balance, you’re overweight, you have too much stress, you have weak hips, it’s all in your head…All of these have some amount of validity, but NONE of them are applicable 100% of the time to 100% of individuals with back pain.

Experts’ first thoughts are generally based on their existing knowledge base. If that knowledge base is faulty or simply doesn’t apply to the situation at hand, then you’re going to run into some serious frustration if the expert isn’t willing to question the validity of his/her theories in general or to your specific situation.  Back when I had knee pain that stopped me from walking down stairs, I had a doctor tell me my problem was “overuse.” I was 22 years old and had been sedentary for 3 years. The doctor was a very nice man, but the theory he was offering made no sense at all. So I just didn’t listen to him.

The other week I worked with a lady who had severe neck pain that was not being caused by any of the usual suspects, and I was both confused and surprised.  Eventually we figured out what was causing her issue, but it was not just because I’m such a fantastic expert and can pinpoint everything on the first try. Far from it.

Many of my clients will tell you that I am open about my operating assumptions, testing my hypotheses, and changing course if it seems like the theory was wrong. For the lady with neck pain, what ended up getting the problem solved was her involvement and my willingness to let go of theories that were wrong. I tried some things and asked for feedback. She said that her pain was still there. I tried some other things, and she still had the pain. I asked lots more questions and eventually we both learned enough about the circumstances to realize that there was another possible cause of her neck pain, and so we did end up finding it because she was willing to say, “No, that’s not fixing it.” She provided the necessary information for understanding the real nature of the problem.

Had I relied solely on past experience and past training, and fallen back on the idea that “this will just get better with more time and more of the same approach,” she would probably still be in pain.

Experts who help people with their bodies need to strike a balance between what they know, what they think they know, and what you know. Somewhere in all that is the answer to your problem. If an expert tells you something that sounds completely and utterly inapplicable to your understanding of your own body and your own issues, make sure you get them to listen so that you can get your problem — whatever it is — solved. If your expert won’t listen, then they apparently aren’t expert enough to know just how much they can’t know!


A little bonus food for thought:

In the book, Fooled by Randomness, there’s a great little summary of how to classify scientific theories based on the work of philosopher Sir Karl Popper:

  1. Theories that have been proven to be wrong.
  2. Theories that have not yet been proven to be wrong but that can be proven wrong.

About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.