I have had low- and mid-back issues since I was a teenager. Several years ago, a doctor helped me figure out that it all started when I was in a serious car accident when I was four. The accelerator in our car stuck. My mom was driving on a dirt road and drove into an open field when she realized what was happening. We ended up upside down at least a quarter mile into the field. My leg was tangled in the steering wheel.
Until my late 20s, I would just have a back pain flare up now and then. I’d go to the chiropractor and it would get better. One time it was persistent enough that I did physical therapy. I was 22. I also started doing yoga, a practice I continue to this day, although I can no longer do what most people consider yoga. I do a few stretches and mudras.
Back to my late 20s. I started having more frequent flare ups in my low back. Most were triggered after a fast walk. I had several times the pain was so much I could barely move. I did several rounds of steroids, redoubled my yoga and weight training efforts.
At age 36, I had a flare up that didn’t go away. I ended up in PT again, which helped but didn’t restore my ability to do my job (at the time I was working as a veterinary assistant and was just finishing up my degree in Veterinary Technology). My doctor ordered an MRI. I had a bulging disc pinching the nerve at L5, S1. I also had a good deal of disc degeneration (arthritis), including end plate reactive changes.
It took a good two years to get to a more stable place. I switched my work back to an office job, which didn’t work out. Turned out sitting at a desk was as bad as walking around and standing a lot. I then turned to pet sitting, which was less demanding on my back. I worked my way up to walking 5 to 8 miles a day without triggering unbearable pain, with a few exceptions of random flare ups once a year or so. I got used to living with the pain. If it got really bad, I could usually tolerate taking some Aleve for a day without my stomach revolting. Also, opioids knock me out, even at low doses, so no dice there. Also, most low-dose opioids contain acetaminophen, which is a tummy killer. I do use topical lidocaine, but it is mildly helpful at best.
Last year, I started getting more frequent flare ups and I didn’t bounce back from them as quickly. What used to lay me out for a day or two, was nagging me for a week or more. Eventually, the nagging persisted constantly and my stomach refused to tolerate OTC pain pills (in other news, I found out last May that I had carcinoid stomach cancer—I’ll talk about cancer tomorrow. And don’t worry. I just had an all clear test in December).
I ended up getting another MRI and being referred to a local spine clinic. I had another bulging disc, one up from the other one. That first disc had collapsed, so it’s not really bulging much anymore since it’s barely there. The real eye opener was my spinal x-rays. There was so much arthritic “noise” you could barely identify the spinal processes. Yeah, no wonder my back was stiff and painful.
Since that MRI last summer, I’ve been to one spinal doctor, two sports medicine doctors, a pain doctor, and two different physical therapists. I also started seeing a therapist because chronic pain messes with your head (having cancer does too) and I already have struggled with depression most of my life. I got four steroid shots into my spine, spent the better part of two months drugged out on muscle relaxers and gabapentin, and have worked my butt off to regain some flexibility in my low back and strengthen my ab muscles. I wish all of that took the pain away enough I could go back to living a “normal” life. That is, apparently, not in the cards for me. I’ve been grieving the slow lose of abilities for many years now. I think I will be the rest of my life.
Throughout all this, it’s been two steps forward, 1.5 steps back. Sometimes three steps back. I had to quit dog walking, although I still do non-walk visits. That really cut into my income. I am working on figuring out what else I can do that, preferably, won’t flare up my back enough I get another episode where I can’t walk without assistance. And let’s be honest, I can’t really function if my pain level even gets to a 5 on a steady basis. At that point, I am barely able to prepare myself food much less do anything productive.
On that note, anyone know of a job flexible enough to accommodate periodic (like almost daily) times where I just need a timeout of a half hour or so to lay down and try to get my muscles to relax enough to stop spasming? So far they seem to be hard to come by. In the meantime, I continue to rely on my husband because I don’t qualify for disability (it sucks when you decide to go back to school and only work very part-time hours and then get disabled and find out that because you weren’t working enough hours you can’t get disability even though you worked full time and paid into the system for more than a decade). At least my husband earns good money. We could be much worse off.
I am learning how not to overdo with activities of daily living, like basic housework, writing my blog, etc. I am learning the limits of my work capabilities. It’s frustrating and stressful and a lot of days I can barely fight my way out of a deep depression. It helps that I finally found a doable gabapentin dose. It also helps that I learned I developed SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) and am now getting treated for that. Maybe someday my GI system won’t be so messed up and I can take an occasional Aleve again.
To deal with chronic pain, health conditions, and all the other stresses of life, I’ve been reading Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart. It helps. I am learning nonattachment. I walk the path two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes three steps back. Forward progress remains.
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