On Living With Chronic Back Pain

I shift in my chair uncomfortably. I’ve been staring at my computer screen for the last two hours and I’ve written and deleted and rewritten a passage that I’m still not satisfied with. Something is gnawing at me.

I crack my neck. Left, right, left again. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I roll my shoulders once, twice, three times. The gnawing persists. I tuck my left leg under my butt and purposefully hunch forward.

Another hour passes and I’ve moved on to work on a post for my company’s tech blog. Eight tabs are open in Chrome and the post is looking more hyperlinked than a Wiki page. I stand up and hop around lightly in my office. A familiar tingling has started down my right leg, and two of my toes feel as though they’re frozen over. I bring my left knee up to my stomach, then my right knee. I crack my neck. Left, right, left again.

pillsBack in my seat. Where was I? It takes a minute to reorient myself to my research. I shift on my haunches and stare at the clock. Is it time to take my pills yet? Not yet. You take those just before noon, with your lunch. I curse my former dance career for the first time of the day—the millionth time over the last nine years since I slammed into the floor during rehearsal and herniated my disc.

Some days are better than others. Some days, I’m laying on the floor in my living room with my feet on the couch and a softball under my spine, pressing on the muscles that have contracted themselves around my vertebrae. Other days the pain is red hot, flowing through my nerves like molten magma, flooding my brain with a miasma of distress.

But most days are like today—an exhausting exercise in discomfort. A series of neck rolls and twists and shifts and distractions. An undercurrent of fatigue and frustration. A dull, constant companion that, despite my efforts, I’m unable to shake.

If I’m sounding melodramatic, it’s because I’m meeting with my orthopedic physician on Thursday, and that never goes well. In the nine years since that fateful rehearsal that ended my dance career, I’ve seen a dozen doctors who’ve diagnosed me with sacroiliitis, facet syndrome, sciatica, and, wait for it, “just some pulled muscles.” I finally received a proper diagnosis of “lumbar disc herniation and disc degeneration” three years ago. Prior to that, I had gone to physical therapy twice, seen a chiropractor, gone through traction, been injected with cortisone shots, received epidural steroid injections, gotten deep tissue massages, went to reflexology, been prescribed anti-depressants (for the pain and for the misery caused by the pain), took anti-inflammatories, and finally landed on pain killers when, after everything else failed, my doctor just shrugged his shoulders, tossed the pills at me, and said, “There’s really not much we can do except manage the pain.”

Every time I go to the doctor about my chronic back pain I end up in tears. In one of my more recent visits, while newly pregnant with Lucas and wondering what I could do to “manage the pain” while refusing pain killers, my doctor wrote down the name of a book and told me to read it. The book contained step-by-step instructions for various back stretches.

A book.

So for this visit, I’m not expecting much. I’m steeling myself for his less-than-sympathetic advice, and for his likely suggestion to keep doing the same old shit I’ve been doing that has barely made a difference over nearly a decade. I’m hoping, after he runs all the requisite tests necessary to bleed my health insurance dry, he’ll sign me up for another epidural steroid injection—this time in the right location. (A previous doctor gave me an epidural injection in a different area of the spine based on an educated guess, having misread my MRI and having completely missed the herniated disc between L5 and S1. It did not go well.)

I’m not sure why I want this injection when I’m pretty sure it’s not going to work. Maybe I need to show myself that I’m still trying. Maybe I’m sick of staring at the clock and waiting, waiting, waiting until it’s appropriate-time-for-pills-o-clock. Maybe I’m disheartened that the effects of the pills seem to be waning, and I’m wondering how many of these things I’m going to have to pop in 30 years to make a dent in my pain.

Maybe I just want to make it through one day without squirming in my chair.

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