Muscle therapist Spanos heals self through own methods

Tasso Spanos stretches inside Hurlbut Church. Spanos suffered a stroke five months ago and still has trouble with his speech. His recovery has been helped by his training in exercises for dealing with pain, which he has taught for years through Chautauqua’s Special Studies program. Photo by Adam Birkan.

Joanna HamerStaff Writer

Five months ago, while treating a patient, Tasso Spanos suffered what was supposed to have been a life-ending stroke. He collapsed on the floor and found himself unable to speak, with the right side of his body partially paralyzed.

Fortunately, his patient called emergency services and Spanos arrived at the hospital in less than 20 minutes. Even more fortunately, Spanos is a certified trigger point myotherapist who studied under Dr. Janet Travell, the first White House physician, and is an expert on the human body and its recovery.

Spanos first began studying trigger point therapy many years ago, when he saw Bonnie Prudden on tour with her book Pain Erasure. At the time, his wife was suffering from fibromyalgia, and traditional doctors couldn’t seem to help her.

“I bought her book, and then the following night, I treated my wife. She was walking on a cane for three years, and then she was not walking with a cane for maybe 30 years. I was treating trigger points — the origin of the pain, not the pain site. And I was doing crummy work, but crummy work in the right place, which is equal to fantastic, high-tech work in the wrong place.”

The next summer, Spanos went to a two-week workshop led by Prudden and then came to Chautauqua and offered a course featuring exercises for dealing with pain. The advertisement for the course mentioned that he had worked with Prudden, and Spanos said that the first response was overwhelming.

“The readers did not see the ‘exercise’ portion; readers saw ‘dealing with pain,’ and 75 people showed up. There were walkers, and crutches and wheelchairs. I explained it was an exercise class for dealing with pain, not holy water, so 50 people limped, or were wheeled or crutched away.”

Since that first summer, 1982, Spanos has continued to give his “Feeling Better” exercises class, expanding from two weeks to the whole summer, and producing a video of 100 stretches to reduce pain. He closed the audio store he ran and opened the Center for Pain Treatment in Pittsburgh. The myofascial trigger point therapy philosophy is to understand pain through muscle groups and then release tension by applying pressure to trigger points.

This season, in addition to his weekly exercises, Spanos taught a one-time, three-hour class on “How to Survive Prolonged Sitting.” The class was particularly difficult for him to put together and present, because he was only just learning to speak again.

After his stroke, Spanos lost the ability to talk, and his speech therapist told him that it would take about a year for him to be able to hold a conversation again.

“She saw me, I was paralyzed, I couldn’t smile. She said, ‘The statistics say —’ and I said, ‘I don’t care about statistics. I am not a statistic. I am first a person and then a statistic,” Spanos said.

He treated his facial muscles in the same way he had treated many of his patients, and he said that his experience treating singers had made him aware of the muscles associated with speech. Still, the recovery process was painstaking, especially when formulating his new class.

“I can’t think of the word ‘the’ when I’m writing, and my spelling was very affected. I forget words, so I have to substitute words. The fourth week of my stroke, I could recite the book’s heading, Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction, by Dr. Travell and Dr. Simons, but I could not think of the word ‘chapter,’ ” he said.

Along with speech therapy, Spanos had hyperbaric chamber sessions and began taking a course of vitamins, natural blood thinners and omega-3 oils. His encyclopedic knowledge of the body is still intact, and he can still cite page and paragraph from Travell’s book. He still has his library of stories, anecdotes, movie scenes, quips, jokes and fables that relate to the patient’s situation.

But his stroke has affected his routines and his practice.

“I’m tired, and I have fewer patients this summer. I can’t be heard in class, so I’m amplifying the class. I can’t appear on the radio, because I wouldn’t be understood.”

But Spanos has several conventions to attend and schools to give presentations to in the coming months, which he sees as only more hurdles to jump. Just as he didn’t believe that his wife’s fibromyalgia was incurable, or that his patients needed surgery when he could relieve their pain through trigger point treatment, Spanos doesn’t believe that a deadly stroke has to end his life.