Ryan: A Tale of Two Sneezes

I used to live in fear of sneezing. When I felt a sneeze coming on, I would tense up and try to ward it off. I would try to breathe through it. I heard that tickling the roof of the mouth could stop a sneeze. Someone suggested that pinching the skin between the thumb and fingers would neutralize an oncoming sneeze. I tried every trick, every old wives’ tale to avoid it.

Sometimes my efforts paid off, but more times than not, the sneeze happened anyway, and I had seconds to brace myself for a truly awful event. Sneezing for me was not the “pepper under the nose” comical event we see in cartoons, or even the slightly embarrassing inconvenience most adults experience.

A sneeze for me was painful at best, and truly agonizing at worst. Sometimes a sneeze would literally bring me to my knees. It felt like my rib cage and my spine were colliding at high speed. A particularly bad one would leave me slightly achy for hours, my back, hips, even my feet begging for mercy. My reaction was so extreme that onlookers often laughed, but it wasn’t funny to me.

When I was about eight years old, I began experiencing flares of joint pain that transformed a super active kid who loved to run full speed to a much more passive one who avoided movement at all costs. I remember asking classmates to take my completed worksheets to the teacher’s desk for me because it hurt too much to stand up and get myself moving. Kickball? Forget it.

My third grade year began a long medical odyssey. Lots of doctors. Lots of tests. Lots of well- meaning suggestions and sympathetic looks. But no answers. By seventh grade, the flares seemed less pronounced and the general consensus seemed to be that I was suffering from a form of juvenile arthritis and perhaps I would grow out of it completely.

Um…no such luck. The pain returned in adulthood and drove me back to doctors. This time, an astute rheumatologist connected all the dots and diagnosed me with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that causes inflammation of the spine and joints. In extreme cases, the vertebrae can fuse, and heart and lung function can be impacted. Scary stuff, but it was good to have an answer.

For years, I lived with the unpredictability of my flares, all the while taking medication to manage pain and reduce the inflammation in my body. I was constantly torn between the desire to be pain-free and the fear of unpleasant side effects of heavy duty meds.

After I began intermittent fasting two years ago, my flares become less frequent. At first I didn’t even notice that much. I began a yoga practice and didn’t spend all my day afters nursing aches and pains. I even started missing doses of my med until I was able to stop taking it altogether.

The true test? I was in front of the classroom when a sneeze came on, and I couldn’t contain it. I assumed the same bent over protective posture I always assumed in that situation, my effort to hold my body together in the face of the violent assault it was about to suffer. I probably made the same punched in the gut noise that typically accompanied a sneeze, but it didn’t hurt. Not all all. Loud, silly, slightly embarrassing? Sure. But painful? Nope.

I no longer live in fear of sneezing. I even kind of like it.

The whole story of our personal transformation is in our new book, Unbelievable Freedom: How Intermittent Fasting Transformed Our Health and Happiness, available on Amazon using the link below.