Think about pain. Can you imagine it? Maybe it’s in your back or your shoulder. Maybe it started a couple days ago and hasn’t quite let up yet… Think about how you deal with it. You are sure it will go away, right? Now think about feeling pain every day. Pain that doesn’t go away. Think about feeling pain that has no rhyme or reason and no hope of leaving you. How would you handle that?
If you are anything like me, the answer is messy. I don’t have to imagine the pain. I feel it every single day, no matter what. I can’t go a day without it. Just as I asked you to imagine what it might feel like to experience pain every day, I spend my time imagining what it’s like to be pain free. I live every day with burning, aching pain in my hips, stabbing pains in my calves, and an uncomfortably warm, tingling sensation in my feet. I don’t feel all of this all the time, but I am ALWAYS feeling some kind of pain. I feel pain that makes me wish my legs were removable—as if, somehow, when they hurt too much, I could pop them off like a Barbie and just leave them for awhile. My pain is not always extreme, but due to its ever present nature, it takes its toll on my psyche. And even though I have only lived with chronic pain for two and a half years, it’s hard for my mind (and my body) to remember those pain free years. The burning, stabbing, aching, and tingling are always there in some form. The pain has caused me to question who I am and what I want, has taught me to mistrust my own body, and has led my life down a path I never imagined I would take.
This pain has led me to a bit of an identity crisis. As I write this, I am not sure how to introduce myself to you. Am I a survivor of chronic pain? Am I a sufferer? A victim? A warrior? I guess I am all of them. I suffer and survive equally; I fight the pain just as much as I fall victim to it. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if the label matters. I haven’t decided yet. What matters more is how I got here and where I’m going next. Here is my story (in a nutshell):
My pain began the second week of March 2016 while I was sitting at work. There was no accident, no event, no injury. I just began to hurt. I went to urgent care to get some medication—muscle relaxers or pain meds, I didn’t care. I rested for a couple of days and headed back to work the following Monday. After a few weeks of continued pain in my low back while I was sitting, it started to shift to my right leg, moving downward when I bent forward. As my symptoms changed, so did my husband’s level of concern. It was time to see a physical therapist.
I began physical therapy twice a week for a couple of months and spent the rest of my time trying to cope with the daily nerve pain in my legs and back. I was miserable when I sat down, when I bent over, when I did any kind of physical activity, or even just laid on the couch. Because of this constant pain, I was struggling to focus at work, hardly maintaining a social life, and even having a hard time relaxing at home. I was so desperate for relief at work that I would lay outside on the ground on my lunch break just to have a break from the pain. Morale was dropping lower and lower by the day as I searched for an answer and a cure. I was spending my physical therapy sessions trying to figure out what was wrong. Terms were thrown around such as “lumbago,” “sciatica,” and “neuropathy,” but I never really understood the cause of this discomfort. Unfortunately, neither did my physical therapist. Surprising right? This is a blog on a physical therapist’s website. Of course it should have a happy ending courtesy of PT! Not quite. Stay tuned though—the story is just beginning.
After a couple months of physical therapy, a trip to my primary care physician, a referral to an orthopedic spine specialist, and an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), it was determined that I had a herniated disc at L5-S1. Finally, someone had found the source of my pain!
Don’t know anything about the spine? That’s ok—I didn’t know much either. Follow this link for a crash course in disc herniation. I highly recommend checking out that site’s explanation, because mine is a rather ridiculous example. But here it is: The discs that sit between each bone in your back are like jelly donuts. Imagine that the pressure of your back movements/injuries are equivalent to biting into a jelly donut. The jelly inevitably squirts out the weak spot that was created by inserting the jelly, right? Well, when a disc is injured, it forms a weak spot that allows the “jelly” to push out when the donut/disc is compressed. This jelly then sits on the outside of the disc, pushing on the nearby nerves that run down to your legs and feet. The nerves then get irritated and inflamed, and the “jelly” has even less room to hang out before it irritates the nerves even more—it’s a vicious cycle. According to the MRI, this is exactly what was happening to me.
The solution for this (if therapy doesn’t work) is to try a transforaminal epidural steroid injection (also explained in the link above), which is intended to decrease the swelling of the nerve(s) and give the disc herniation/jelly a little room. These injections have been found to be successful in over 50% of patients but, apparently, I’m not in that 50%. I was required to wait one to two weeks to see if each injection worked, but I could tell right away that nothing was changing. After a few failed attempts with the injections, my orthopedic surgeon recommended that I have surgery to remove the “jelly” from the outside of the disc and repair the wall of the disc.
Now, I should note that not all disc herniations cause pain. There are people walking around with huge herniations and no symptoms. Since I am not an expert, I cannot comment on how that is possible, but that is just the way the cookie crumbles. I was also told that some people’s pain even goes away on its own within a year; all they had to do was wait it out. There was no way I was going to just sit and wait for my pain to subside. Luckily, my husband agreed. If I remember correctly, his response to that information was, “We can’t live like this for a whole year.” Tell me about it! We were in agreement, and surgery was officially on the agenda. I was scheduled for a laminectomy and microdiscectomy at L5-S1 to be done on August 12, 2016—a full six months after my pain began.
Unfortunately, this is not where the story ends. There isn’t a nice bow on top in the form of surgical sutures. In fact, the real journey was just beginning. Be on the lookout for Part 2 to get more of the story, including my battle with medications, continued physical therapy, and a diagnosis of a scary lifelong problem.