by Madeline Laughs
When I was younger and someone said “My back hurts, I can’t do that.” I would roll my eyes. This statement translated in my head to “You’re just fukking lazy.”
I have changed my inner thoughts on back pain drastically since then.
My back pain is not something I ever talk about. It is rare that I share this part of my life with people. But I figured there might be someone out there that I can help or perhaps, comfort. If you have back pain, you are not alone. There are plenty of options for caring for yourself that don’t involve drugs and your life is not over.
I shattered my L5 disc over 10 years ago in a bicycle accident. I have been in pain, with the exception of maybe 2 or 3 lovely, memorable days since, every single day of my life. Take a moment and just imagine that. This is pain that is constant. It just sits there in your lower back, sometimes it’s down your legs and sometimes it just hurts all over. It makes me tired. I don’t remember what it feels like to not be in pain.
I have had surgery. The disc was cleaned up. The bone fragments that littered my spinal cord were all carefully plucked out, one by one. Part of my spinal dural sac now hangs in front of the boney part of my spine. This is why I struggle with pain.
Right after surgery I was prescribed muscle relaxers and Oxycontin. I was told that I would have to take these for the rest of my life. I took them for 2 months. Then I threw them out. They numbed the pain, however they also numbed me. I don’t understand people that abuse drugs like these. They rob you of your humanity.
I have managed my pain on my own for over 10 years without the use of barbiturates or narcotics. Occasionally it builds up to a point that I need medical assistance. I know when those times are happening. I stop sleeping through the night. I can’t get comfortable no matter what I try. I get sleepy quickly and can fall asleep, though fitfully, at the drop of a dime, during the daylight hours when I’m supposed to be awake.
Even though I can be in excruciating pain some days, I have strived to never allow it to take hold of my personality and to rule my life. I made this deal with myself when I realized that I would never recover fully from that bicycle accident.
So, what do I do to help myself?
I stretch everyday. Some mornings I stretch before my feet ever hit the floor. I have favorite stretches, like the one I do to elongate my calf muscles. This one movement makes all of the pain disappear for a few brief, luxurious moments. I can stand there with my eyes closed and imagine what this would feel like forever.
I concentrate on my hamstrings. I keep them stretched throughout the day. Hamstrings are huge muscles and can make a big difference in how you feel in motion or at rest.
I practice good posture. Sit up straight.
I stay active. I walk on my treadmill and I garden. I do yoga and low impact aerobics. I also try to watch my weight, though that is an ongoing trial since my back surgery. I confess that watching my weight is not something I am any good at. I’m a foodie 🙂 But less weight on your body is less stress on your spine.
I ice my back at least once a day in the summer time because I’m more active when it’s warm outside. In the winter I sleep with a heating pad. I’m real high tech now that I have a heating pad that has an auto-shut off mechanism. I also like hot baths and long soaks when I can. And I add bubbles too 🙂
I have tried supplements, but there really is no scientific data that supports their benefits other than improving your complexion, so I figure why waste my time. I already use a great moisturizer and I don’t need a placebo to help me pretend I might feel better. I did take some seaweed supplements for a while and later heard they contained neuro-toxins. Sheesh! If I take anything ever again, it will have been rigorously tested by the FDA.
I get annoyed when I hear advice like “You know, if you took up running or jogging, your back wouldn’t hurt anymore.” Here’s how I process advice like that. In my head I hear the pounding of my feet on pavement. I feel the jarring reverberation that slams my body into the ground with the force of gravity and I imagine my dural sac grinding against bone and becoming a bloody mass of tissue. This helpful person might have just said to me “You know, if you take this really dull stiletto knife and stab yourself repeatedly in the lower back everyday for a few weeks, your back wouldn’t hurt anymore.” I always want to ask them “Does your back hurt?” and when they say no, I want to punch their lights out.
It seems that there are a lot of folks out there that have advice about how you can manage your back pain without drugs, but only you will know what works for you.
When I get to a point that I can no longer manage the pain on my own, I visit my doctor. I have a prescription for a strong anti-inflammatory drug now. I use this when the pain hits 6 on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being insane with pain. I haven’t reached level 10 in over 9 years now.
At pain level 6 I will ask for a taper pack of steroids. This taper pack will give me a respite of two weeks. Those two weeks, I feel normal. My back annoys me, but it doesn’t hurt. If I can get this break, I can regroup and recharge.
I recently had another EMG test.
Along with back pain, I also have neuropathy in my feet. This happens when you suffer damage of the peripheral nerves that lead from your feet to your brain and your spinal cord. These nerves were damaged in my accident. They no longer work. An EMG test is performed to determine how much damage there is and if there are new developments.They shock nerve endings with a small tazer to activate nervous response. Then they insert needles, like the one pictured above, (they look scary, but they’re not so bad) and send electric pulses into the muscle tissue to illicit a response. This is recorded on a monitor and the doctor then interprets the test. The test is uncomfortable and you are awake, but it’s really not so bad and it’s necessary. If your doctor wants you to have one, do it!
Once you damage your spine, you will have to become proactive in your care.
My neuropathy is numbness in the bottoms and parts of the top of my feet. It can be daunting to close my eyes in the shower sometimes 🙂 And I do not go barefoot anymore. I keep track of new numbness and see my doctor if I think it’s crawling or spreading to new areas.
In my situation, when the neuropathy crawls to new places, I have to stay on top of my care. This indicates to me that something is being pinched or rubbed in my back and that should not be happening. A pinched nerve for me could be devastating. It would mean another surgery. Usually when this happens, I ask my doctor for a taper pack of steroids so he and I can determine if the problem is bone related or muscle related. Inflammation in my lower back will increase fluid build up and these fluid sacs rub nerve endings and irritate them. This will cause additional numbness. After my first dose of medication I usually know if it’s bone or muscle. Luckily for me, it hasn’t ever been bone related.
This year I am going to step up my pain management and try some new techniques. I will be starting physical therapy again this Monday and I’m doing a round of deep tissue massage. I can not praise the benefits of deep tissue massage enough! Let me explain the difference to you.
Deep tissue massage is not your rubadub massage that you might get at a day spa.I found this comparison at Sacred Luna and they say it much better than I can.
“The definition of deep tissue massage is specific massage manipulation of the deeper tissue structures of the muscle and fascia, also called connective tissue. Deep tissue manipulation therapy uses many of the same movements and techniques as Swedish massage, but the pressure is more intense. It is also a more focused type of massage, as the deep tissue massage therapist works to release chronic muscle tension or knots (also known as “adhesions.”) Although it is more uncomfortable then Swedish massage, it shouldn’t hurt. The communication between a client and a deep tissue massage therapist is important. As a client, you should report any feeling of pain, referred pain, numbness or tingling. You should also report when the pressure is too much for you. Different people and even different parts of the body of the same person have different pain tolerance. Your body is your best guide. It shouldn’t be painful! In fact, when you feel the pain, the muscle contracts even more. There is however, what most people refer to as a “good pain”. I found that most of my clients love deep pressure. In fact, most of my massage sessions fall under the definition of Deep Tissue massage. There can be some times stiffness or soreness after a deep tissue manipulation, but it should subside within a day or two. If you experience pain in the muscles, apply ice to the area after the deep tissue manipulation.
Unlike classic massage therapy, which is used for relaxation, deep tissue manipulation usually focuses on a specific problem, such as:
- Chronic pain
- Limited mobility
- Recovery from injuries (e.g. whiplash, falls, sports injury) deep tissue injury
- Repetitive strain injury, such as carpal tunnel syndrome
- Postural problems
- Ostearthritis pain
- Muscle tension or spasm
What are the benefits of deep tissue massage?
When there is chronic muscle tension or deep tissue injury, there are usually adhesions (bands of painful, rigid tissue) in muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
Adhesion can block circulation and press on the nerves, causing pain, limited movement, and inflammation.
Deep tissue massage therapy works by physically breaking down these adhesions to relieve pain and restore normal movement.”
Although they stress that it shouldn’t hurt, I disagree. The best deep tissue massages I ever had, where I experienced the most improvement and recovery from, did indeed hurt. They were that “good pain” Sacred Luna refers to.
If your back hurts, pay attention!
My favorite work out tapes are by Denise Austin. The reason she’s my favorite is not because she was ever the workout flavor of the month, or because she ever had a gimmick. I like her because working out and physical health and well being is who she is.
“Denise started gymnastics at the age of 12 and earned an athletic scholarship to attend the University of Arizona. In 1979, she graduated from California State University at Long Beach with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Physical Education, with an emphasis on exercise physiology.”
When it comes to doing an exercise right, she’s the person I want showing me. You can exercise all day long and end up hurting yourself worse than you were before you started exercising. Quality movement beats quantity every time.
There is one line she is famous for saying over and over in each of her workout videos. It has become my mantra.
“Your spine is your lifeline.”
Believe it folks, because it’s true. Until next time, respect yourself and honor your spine with some long, languid stretches.