You Should Know… Stella Emsellem

Photo by Dan Schere.

Grinding teeth at night is a common problem among the news-obsessed, Type-A Washingtonians that Stella Emsellem sees every day. As a doctor of osteopathic medicine, she diagnoses patients experiencing pain through a combination of touching and listening to them. Her goal is to understand how people’s mental and physical problems are linked.

WJW caught up with Emsellem, 35, in her Friendship Heights practice, in the same building where her mother works as a neurologist and her sister works as a speech pathologist.

What was your Jewish upbringing like?
I grew up here in Potomac. My father is Sephardic and my mother’s family is Ashkenazi, so that came out as a mix of food. My Jewish culture was influenced by that, with lots of Moroccan salads and was really focused around the kitchen with people talking and laughing over each other.

Did you know you wanted to go into medicine from a young age?
I grew up listening to my mom dictate patient notes. But I didn’t learn about osteopathic medicine until I decided medicine was the right route. I liked the idea of being forced to look at the entirety of the patient picture, with their body, mind and spirit as a unit playing a role, and how I could affect that with my hands by physically touching someone.

Why would someone come see you?
The number one reason is probably for back pain. Then down the list would be knee and shoulder pain, neck pain and then you get into the people that seek me out for headaches. People come to me for excessive bloating and digestive issues.

How do you diagnose patients?
When a patient comes in, we talk for 45 minutes to get the full story. Then, based off of that, I do an osteopathic exam, where I’m looking for what’s not moving and functioning in the body based on what the patient presents.

How do you treat them?
I’m looking for in that specific person, what is not functioning as well as it could. And with my hands, how can I help that body get back to moving better and functioning better. Then we look at what some contributors to the problem are that could change. The heavy hitters that I’m looking at are diet and lifestyle.

And what do you say to the stressed news junkies?
I recommend people don’t check the news all the time. It’s hard to stay away from, and my patients who shut it out suddenly start sleeping better. I think we’re all listening to NPR in our cars, we get alerts on our phone, we live in the midst of what’s happening, and it’s hard to block it out. This can lead to grinding, or clenching your teeth at night, which 95 percent of my patients do. This can lead to tension in your neck, causing headaches, neck pain and low back pain. I recommend that people take a walk outside or take a moment to do nothing and look at a tree.

What’s one really interesting patient you remember?
A woman who came in to me for a diagnosis of vertigo. She had this long story of seeing many doctors, and no one was able to help her. She’s about 50 years old and she’s sitting in the chair across from me holding herself stiff and tall. When she’s turning her head, she’s not turning her neck. She’s turning her whole body to look around the room and her head’s jutted back toward the wall.

I asked her about the episode of vertigo that started her whole journey. And she had had an episode where the room spun around her, which would fit the definition of vertigo. But it passed after an hour. Ever since then, what she had described as vertigo to 10 doctors, was actually a situation where she was outside amongst a large crowd or in a small space with a lot of people. She would feel a small headache and her vision would go a little blurry. But then it would pass once she was out of the situation. And so I said, ‘That’s not vertigo.’

What was the problem?
After examining her, I found a ton of tension in her neck, her head, her brain. A lot of ligaments were tight, things were really stuck in her low back. And what had probably happened was that she had had an underlying anxiety disorder, and when this episode happened she didn’t want to move her head, because moving her head she thought might cause the room to move around her. I treated her by finding the spots that were really stuck in her body, and then we worked on the anxiety component as well.

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