Thursday, August 14, 2008

How Fixing My Stress Fixed My Slipped Disk

Debt Hater had an interesting post about back pain that got me thinking. I wrote a long response in the comments, but I thought I would also tell my story of my back pain and how I fixed it, here in my blog. Though not strictly on topic, had I known what I know now, I could have saved myself a lot of money!

In the winter of 1988 I was in a very serious car accident. I was sitting in the back seat, not wearing my seatbelt (because it was the 80s and we didn't wear seat belts in the back seat then) when my cousin's car spun out of control and slammed up against a telephone pole. I don't remember a whole lot about that night - I went into shock. When all was said and done I ended up with a head full of surgical staples and a very sore shoulder from where I was thrown against the side of the car.

The following summer I was in a lot of pain. My back hurt and what was worse, my right leg seemed to be constantly asleep - not the "numb" feeling, more of that excruciating pins and needles feeling. It was easy to diagnosis - my father had had the exact same thing a year before. Now I won't go into the whole story about the doctors not believing me because I was a young girl and couldn't possibly know what was wrong, but suffice it to say, I ended up having surgery in August of 1989. When I could move again (it took about four days) I was great. I felt good and though I was a little careful about my back, for the most part I didn't think about it much.

Then, five years ago, it came back. I knew what it was, of course. Frankly, I was incredibly angry about it. After all didn't I go under the knife and get a 5" scar to fix this problem?? Since surgery didn't permanently "fix me" the first time I was determined not to have surgery again.

Over the next few years I tried all the natural approaches under the sun. I had high hopes for my chiropractor - the first appointment, sitting in one of his waiting rooms I looked up and saw a drawing of sciatic pain. It was a flash of lightening - instant recognition of the pain I had been having. I ended up having multiple x-rays over those years, every one of them showed the same thing - a herniated disk on L5. It was pinching a nerve and causing all the pain.

Let me tell you a little about that pain. It started slow and gradually built up over time. At first I was just stiff and sore. I had a hard time rolling out of bed in the morning, it was difficult to bed over, to tie my shoes. Slowly it increased and the pain wasn't centered solely in my back - most of it was in my right leg, shooting down the thigh, around the calf and then wrapping like a python of pain around my ankle. As my body attempted to compensate, my back began to twist and turn like a roller coaster track. Before long when I stood straight up one foot was over an 1.5" higher than the other! When I walked I looked like the victim of some horrible disease, I had to use that rolling gait that makes other people wince in sympathy. I tried everything I would think of - massages, therapists, chiropractors, acupuncture - even hot tubs. Pain meds wouldn't even touch it. The only thing that offered temporary relief was laying on a hard flat floor for 10-15 minutes. The only problem with that was that I couldn't get up again.

I don't want to put down chiropractors or acupuncturists or any of those things. All of those things I tried helped some, and I truly believe they are a great choice for many people. But, after years and years of going sometimes twice a week, I was tired of it all. I was sick of the money and the driving and giving up my lunch hours, and for what? I was still in pain.

I talked to my chiropractor about it and he suggested trying something else. He had a new machine, I don't know what it was called, I just thought of it as "The Rack." It was a stretching machine, designed to pull the legs and stretch the spine. Frankly, I liked The Rack, it felt pretty good when I was on it - and I could always hope it would make me a little taller! He gave me some literature to read about it so I would know why he chose this machine for me.

I read the literature and tried The Rack. Even though it felt good when I was on it, it didn't seem to make any difference when I was off. So finally, I gave up. I called my doctor and asked to set up an appointment to get me in for surgery.

It took six weeks before I could get in and get the MRI needed before surgery. During that time I stopped everything - the chiropractor, the acupuncture, I just stopped it. Why pay for it when I was going to have surgery? But there was something that kept floating around in my brain - it was something I had read in the literature for the The Rack - it was just a short paragraph about a study on herniated disks in senior citizens. I don't remember the exact figures, (I tried to look it up online, but have you tried reading through medical journals and studies?) but it was something like this - of the senior citizens they tested and gave MRIs to, something like 70% had ruptured disks. However, only 30% experienced pain.

That threw me. I kept wondering why. Why did some people have pain and others not even know they have it? What is different? Slowly, an idea began to emerge. I realized I carry all my stress right smack dab in the center of my lower back. I work on a computer all day at work and there I was, sort of hunched over, muscles tight, hurting so badly and what's more, stressed about the pain. I thought about those tight muscles putting strain on my spine, making a bad problem even worse. So, I decided to do something about it.

I started taking care of myself.

I started eating better, exercising and getting lots (and lots) of rest. I concentrated on relaxing those muscles, on not letting stress make me tighten them up. I took long baths, read books, drank a lot of tea. I began meditating regularly. And you know what? It worked.

By the time I went in for my MRI, I no longer had back pain. In fact, I knew laying in the machine that I wasn't going to get the surgery. I went ahead with the test "just in case" the pain came back, but in the back of my mind I knew the pain was gone.

Don't get me wrong, I am not healed. I still have a slipped disk in my lower back. There are some days, especially lately as everything has been so crazy in my life, I feel that pain coming back. When it does I try to acknowledge it and cut back on doing too much. I think of it now as my warning system.

I don't want to tell anyone to substitute a cup of chamomile tea for a doctor's visit. If you are in pain and need to seek medical assistance - go for it for heaven's sake! But what I will say, especially for pain related to "stress hot spots" like shoulders, neck and back, is that trying to figure out the cause of your stress and combat it will help you heal faster. It can also be a warning sign when problems are on the horizon. Taking care of yourself, not pushing yourself too hard, especially when you are in pain, is one of the smartest (and frankly most inexpensive) things you can do for yourself.

More to Read:

Debt Hater - If its broke, it will cost you to fix it. - Sciatica Symptoms

Senior World Chronicle: USA: Back Pain, What Works

Spine Universe - Surgery for a Herniated Disk

Spine Universe - Tame Stress to Reduce Neck and Back Pain

Beautiful Photo by: Katie Cowden
Picture of Sciatic pain from Sports Injury


Anonymous said...

I have a friend suffering as you are. I feel that he can only learn from true experiences of others that will enable him to become pain free. Thank you for your story

Dawn said...

You are most welcome and thank you for stopping buy!