Snuggling on the couch with my pup on this rainy day, I found myself reflecting on my personal journey throughout the past couple years. If you’ve known me less than two years, you would probably never guess that I spent a huge chunk of my life living in chronic pain, suffering from severe muscular and neuropathic pain throughout my lower back, arms and legs. The pain was so intense that it left me unable to lead a normal life. At 19 years old, I had lower back surgery, and in fear of reinjuring my back, remained completely inactive which caused all sorts of other complications in my recovery. I thought I was hopeless, and it wasn’t until I was dragged to my first TRX group fitness class that I really started to understand just how important being physically active and building core strength was in my chronic pain recovery. Becoming physically fit and more aware of my body’s capabilities has made the most amazing difference in my life. It took several painful months of keeping up with my new routine to finally notice a decrease in overall pain. But once I experienced a taste of normalcy, I was unstoppable. Armed with a stronger body, I found myself with a brighter outlook on life, a new determination to be my best and new desire to help others in similar situations.
More than 80% of the population will experience low back pain at some time in their lives.(1) Studies have shown that 95% of all sufferers recover within a few months, but others, like me, will end up developing chronic pain conditions.(2) People often ask what caused my injury. I sure wish I knew. As far back as I can remember, I have always had back issues. I was diagnosed with mild scoliosis as a child, but being a stubborn pre-teen, I refused to take my doctor’s suggestion of wearing a back brace. In my later teens, I started developing infrequent bouts of low back pain which increased with physical activity. I remembered my mom frequenting a chiropractor for her own back pain and, at the time, I just assumed it was something that happened to everyone as they got older. By the time I was 19, the pain started becoming more frequent and much more severe. I had to quit my job because I was unable to stand for long periods of time. January 2007, I ended up in the ER because, not only was the pain so intense I was seeing stars, but I was unable to put full weight on my right leg without it collapsing under me. An MRI showed a large herniation of L5-S1, causing spinal stenosis and pushing on the surrounding nerves causing the weakness and neuropathic pain I was experiencing. This was just the start of my painful journey.
Shortly after my ER visit, I was referred to an orthopedic surgeon. Upon learning of my leg weakness, he immediately recommended surgery as soon as possible to relieve the pressure on the spinal nerves. After trying a few alternative treatments, I did some research and agreed that this was my best option for recovery. In June 2007, I had a bilateral laminectomy, discectomy and foraminotomy in my lower spine at L5-S1. Surgery went well, but recovery proved to be ridiculously difficult. It was a long couple of weeks regaining the strength to do daily activities on my own. I spent most of the time bedridden and when I felt strong enough, I took small walks downstairs and around the house. Even though recovery was tough, I was hopeful that after the surgical pain and swelling subsided, I would have my normal life back.
Unfortunately, this was really still just the beginning of my years living in pain. That’s not to say that the surgery was unsuccessful. It was very successful in that it relieved the pressure on the spinal nerves and I was eventually able to put weight back on my right leg. The surgical pain eventually decreased after a month or two had passed, but not for long. About three months post-op, pain returned with a vengeance, not only in my lower back and legs, but throughout my spine and my arms. I was miserable. At the time, I became a frequent visitor to a chronic pain forum where I commiserated with many others going through the same things. We were each other’s support systems and met online every night to complain, give each other advice and try to help each other get through the hard times. These people helped me through some of my darkest times and gave me the strength to keep fighting for answers.
For reasons unknown to me now, I never had any sort of rehab or physical therapy immediately after my surgery. Instead, I spent several years going from specialist to specialist and left every doctor’s visit with a fistful of new prescriptions: stronger narcotics, muscle relaxers, the latest meds for peripheral neuropathy-you name it, I probably tried it. The narcotics numbed the pain for a couple hours until it wore off and the muscle relaxers stopped the muscle spasms long enough for me to get through a day of work. As soon as I would get home, I was basically stuck in bed for the remainder of the day. The anticonvulsants I took to numb the burning, shooting sensations in my arms and legs worked, but had the awful side-effect of memory loss and brain fog. 4 years off of them, and I still have trouble thinking of words sometimes! Knowing what I know now, I would have insisted on physical therapy and massage therapy right away. I would have avoided the drug cocktails that slightly masked the pain, but did absolutely nothing to actually fix the issue.
After a couple years with no positive change, I finally became a patient at a pain management clinic. It was a struggle getting most doctors to take my level of pain seriously because of my young age. When I finally found a clinic that was willing to take me on as a patient, I was very hopeful that we would find something to relieve my suffering so I could live a more normal life. During the time I was under their care, I was given increased dosages of stronger narcotics when I insisted my pain levels were rising, different muscle relaxers and different types of anticonvulsants to treat the nerve pain. I also underwent frequent expensive MRIs and EMGs and was referred for more epidural steroid injections despite me explaining that I have never had any positive outcome from the procedure. I have always hated epidurals because local anesthetics never fully numb me, and as a result they were extremely painful. At their urging, I decided to try one last time and had instant regret. The neurologist that performed the epidural must have hit a nerve during the administration of the injection because in the days after the procedure, I started experiencing weakness and intense pain in my left leg and numbness in my toes for the first time. This just perpetuated the whole ugly cycle.
Thank you for reading! Read on for Part 2.