When former Staff Sgt. Sean Cunningham, DO, broke his neck and back during a parachute jump, osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) helped him conquer his opioid addiction and reignited his dream of becoming a doctor.
Nearly 10 years after his accident, Dr. Cunningham graduated from the Midwestern University Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine in Glendale in June and is now a resident physician in Muskegon, Michigan, with plans to practice family medicine and osteopathic manipulative medicine.
Dr. Cunningham’s role as an Air Force pararescueman allowed him to serve as a special operations combat medic who conducted high-risk rescue missions on mountainous, aquatic, frozen and desert terrain. When he joined the Air Force in 1998, he had planned on a 20-year career in the military before an injury disrupted his dream.
“I got hurt during a parachute jump when we were blown off-course by unexpected winds,” says Dr. Cunningham. “We missed where we were supposed to land, and I crashed into the side of a mountain.”
The five years following his accident were painful. Enduring multiple surgeries to mend his broken body, Dr. Cunningham was stunned by the pain he experienced—and the “unbelievable amount” of opioids he was prescribed.
“When I was on the highest doses, I would wake up, let my dog out, sit on the couch, wouldn’t eat, would let my dog out again, and then I would go to bed,” says Dr. Cunningham. “And that was my day for a long time.”
When his surgeon and pain management doctors told him he would never be able to get off narcotics without going to rehab, Dr. Cunningham was devastated.
“There were a couple of nights I was lucky to have woken up after the respiratory depression that can occur from the narcotics,” he said. “Not to mention the lack of joy. Narcotics take something away from your spirit. You’re using a chemical to get through life.”
A few weeks after he found himself weeping on the floor of a pain management office, Dr. Cunningham drove past an office with a sign on the window that read: “Have pain? Stop in.” Inside the office was a DO who evaluated Dr. Cunningham and started treating him with OMT.
“That evening, I didn’t take my standard pain pill because I didn’t need it,” says Dr. Cunningham, who felt better and took less medication after each treatment. “Without OMT, I don’t think there’s any way I could’ve come off the narcotics.”
Now pain- and opioid-free, Dr. Cunningham is thrilled that he’s embarking on his career as an osteopathic family physician.
“I had no idea what a DO was before my experience,” he says. “Now I know that this is what I was called to do.”
Dr. Cunningham will bring valuable firsthand experience to his new career. He says treating long-term low back and neck pain with opioids is the worst mistake physicians can make, especially if they don’t try OMT.
“If it weren’t for OMT, I’d still be sitting on my couch only getting up to let my dog out,” he says. “I wouldn’t be active at all, and I certainly wouldn’t be an osteopathic physician.”