Tag Archives: back pain

Hey La Hey La, My Back Pain’s Back

On September 17, I received an epidural steroid injection. I didn’t have high hopes for the procedure, but it was my last-ditch effort for Western medicine before I started turning to essential oils and rain dances to Pagan goddesses. On September 18, I had some kind of reaction to the shot, breaking out in a rash and tossing my cookies for a few days. My back pain had not lessened.

heels and dress
I thought about wearing heels for the first time in ages.

But by September 24, something miraculous had happened. I bent down to pick up some of Lucas’ toys and it didn’t hurt. I stood back up and it didn’t hurt. I got up off the couch and it didn’t take a tremendous effort. I went for a walk with my friends and I wasn’t suffering afterwards. I went for a hike with my folks, who were in town visiting for the week, and I didn’t even feel a twinge (just noticed how ridiculously out of shape I am). The pain was virtually gone.

It’s incredible the amount of energy you expend just fighting off chronic pain. I had always attributed my near-constant state of exhaustion to insomnia and to working full-time and caring for an over-the-top energetic three-year-old. But it turns out, I have all the energy in the world when I’m not dealing with back pain. I was more productive in the last week than I’ve been in months—not that I haven’t always worked to the best of my ability—but I found myself churning it out, both at the office and at home.

I liked this new/old me. I had forgotten what it felt like to move about my life and not have to always consider how much it’s going to hurt to do X, Y, and Z. But soon, all too soon, the familiar ache began to creep back in.

October 4, after spending what felt like the entire week in the car driving here, there, and everywhere with my parents, I found myself shifting in my seat uncomfortably. I hadn’t touched my painkillers in days and days, but my mind absentmindedly wondered where I had left them. No. Don’t do it. You are just a little achy. You don’t need them.

October 5, in the wee hours of the morning: I woke up, tossing and turning. It was 4:00am, my usual insomnia-fueled wake-up hour. Only this time I was awake because I was hurting. No position was comfortable. I thought about the pain meds again. No. You are just annoyed because you’re awake. You’re uncomfortable because it’s really hot out. It’s not your back.

October 5, after a morning of cleaning the house and doing the laundry and going grocery shopping, I laid down and felt the spasms of pain as my back finally relaxed against the couch cushions. I felt the numb tingling down my leg and the tightness in my hip. I felt the muscles tense in my backside. I stood up from the couch, gingerly, and made my way to the medicine cabinet. I twisted off the cap, popped a pill, and shuffled back to the couch, staring aimlessly out the slider door.

It was a lovely week and a half.

The Most Pointless Doctor’s Visit of All Time

Yesterday I got a voicemail from my doctor’s office. They wanted to know if I could come in an hour before today’s appointment to get some x-rays done on my back. If my voicemail were a person standing in front of me, it would have been subjected to the longest, heaviest sigh accompanied by the deepest eye roll I could possibly conjure.

It’s well established that I have a herniated disc. An x-ray will show nothing. But sure, let’s waste my time and take another one. (Also, thanks for the heads up. A full day’s notice sure is helpful.)

I arrive in the doctor’s office after the x-rays and fill out a bajillion forms that were likely designed for an elementary school life science program. First, I had to draw on a human body to show where my pain was. For funsies, I also added a mustache and a 70s bush. Then I had to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10…what it is now, what it is at its worst, what it is at its best, and what it’s been, on average, over the last two weeks. This goes on for five more pages where I’m sure I’ve contradicted myself at least three times.

Toward the end of the questionnaire, they add this sneaky little set of questions: How often do you drink? How many drinks per week? When was your last drink? Have you ever used alcohol to treat your pain?

Notice the euphemism of “treat.” They are trying to make it sound like they are totally cool with you drinking your back pain away. Oh yeah, who doesn’t do that, right? I mean, go ahead! Pour yourself a glass, take the edge off! Except if you do check “yes,” they crack down on you like an overzealous 90s straight-edge punk and sign you up to see a counselor to deal with your “drinking problem.” Despite this being a boldfaced lie, I check “NO.”

This is the third time I’ve filled out this questionnaire, despite being a patient of my doctor for more than four years. I don’t think he’s looked at it once.

Finally, after 20 minutes of surveying, I’m escorted into one of the patient rooms. My doctor enters and comments on the fact that it’s been a while since he last saw me.

I’m thinking: Yup. Because you’re a shitty, shitty doctor. But I smile and suppress my cynicism so I can try and get through the visit without punching him in the dick.

I tell him that the reason I’m back is because I’ve been taking pain medication for a while and I can tell that the effects of the pills are starting to wane. I worry that I will have to start taking more for them to be effective, and I don’t want to become addicted. I also worry about the long-term effects of taking these kinds of drugs. What happens in 10 years? In 20 years? I want alternative methods to manage the pain, so I’m looking to do the epidural steroid injection again.

Doctor asks a couple questions, looks at my MRI taken three years ago (which clearly shows the herniated disc), and makes this genius comment: Oh, so it looks like this has progressed into a chronic pain situation.

I cannot contain the sarcasm. It spills out of me like ketchup escaping a Heintz bottle after you slap the 57 a few times.

Me: Well, yeah, doctor. It’s been a chronic pain situation for the past nine years.

Me, in my head: Just look at my blessed chart. Look at it. (All you can do is just look at it.) It’s right there in the flipping chart.

I mention that over the last couple of weeks I’ve been experiencing additional pain in my upper back. I’m pretty sure it’s just a muscle strain brought on by stress, but it’s a stubborn muscle strain and I want to rule out that it isn’t being caused by anything else. Thankfully, he orders another MRI for my upper back. So at least there’s that. But then this happens:

Doctor: Well, I can prescribe you some medication that can help with the tension in your upper back. It’s an anti-anxiety medication, but it can be used to relax muscles.

I’m thinking maybe some kind of muscle relaxant, whatever. Sounds good, sign me up.

Nope. It’s benzos. Benzos, which are basically tranquilizers.

David Tennant rain gif

So after my spiel about not wanting to be addicted to my pain meds, he prescribes me another highly addictive drug. As he’s adding it to my chart, he gets some warning message about it being bad for lactating mothers. Newsflash, HMO: my child is 3.5 years old, and I miscarried those two other babies you assumed I’d be breastfeeding by now. May want to update your records on that.

Moving on, I ask the doctor about something that was in the questionnaire. A few times, the survey asked if I had experienced any problems with my bladder or bowel movements over the last year. I bring up a random bladder issue I had last November just to be sure it’s not tied to the back. I did not think this would be the focus of our meeting. This became the focus of our meeting.

We talked for a long time about what types of back pain/injuries lead to bladder and bowel issues. (Mine isn’t the type, so this is where the conversation should have ended. It didn’t.) Next I get a lesson on how the bladder works, why diet doesn’t impact it, and how it’s nearly impossible to do diet-related research. Somehow, this further spins out into a question of why people get more colds when it’s cold out—is it because of the cold itself, or is it because viruses and bacteria can spread better in the dry air? I…I don’t have that answer doctor.

And then we talk about Eskimos.

Part of it is my fault. I allow myself to become bamboozled by the anecdotal, casual conversation, and before I have a chance to pepper my doctor with the important questions I had prepared ahead of time, the appointment is over. The entire time, I haven’t once gotten up off the table, and the doctor hasn’t asked me to move or bend or to feel my spine or the muscles in my back at all. He looks at my old MRI, says we should order another MRI (no shit), and I’ll have to make the one-hour drive up to the offices on another day to do that. Cool. No problem. This pointless doctor’s visit didn’t inconvenience me at all. Why not go through it again?

He never once looks at the x-rays that I came in an hour early to take.

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.