On the morning of October 21, 2013, I woke up with so much pain in my neck and right shoulder that I could not turn my head. A sharp, pulsating, burning menace had overtaken the entire upper right quadrant of my body, so intense I could barely breathe. It crowded out all comers; I lay in my bed unable to string one thought to the next, with no idea what the right thing to do was. A creature of habit, as we all are, I found myself getting up anyway. I took a brief shower, got dressed, ate a little breakfast and headed to the gym for my usual morning swim workout.
A lifelong swimmer, I had taken up an intense swimming program about six weeks before to train for competing in open water races the following Spring. One of the few coherent opinions I could muster that morning was that must have I pulled some muscles and the best thing to do would be to get in the water and try to move around a little, increasing the blood flow and hopefully easing things out somewhat.
That was not what happened. Halfway through the workout, I pulled myself out of the pool, defeated. The pain was no better; in fact, it was worse. I didn’t know what to do next. I did know, however, that participating in the rest of my daily activities was not going to happen. I walked out to the parking lot and sat in my car, my neck and shoulder throbbing unbearably, at a total loss. Should I call a doctor? What kind of doctor? I didn’t know what was happening to me. I couldn’t even tell where the pain locus was. So I did what any other self-respecting adult woman would do. I called my Mom.
Momma Ape is no stranger to this sort of thing; she has been dealing with her own slate of chronic pain issues for over twenty years. She ordered me to call an orthopedist, right now, and demand to be seen today. I started to cry. I realized that something was very seriously wrong with me, and I was terrified.
I went to see a spine doctor. He diagnosed a pinched nerve in my neck and prescribed opiates, which I turned down. I am a returning student, working towards a graduate degree. I cannot afford to be doped up; I need my brain to work. He wrote a script for an NSAID, fitted me with a cervical collar, and asked to see me back in a week.
A week later I was no better. I reluctantly took the opiate prescription and went in for an emergency MRI. The MRI was inconclusive, but the doctor decided to go ahead and treat me for a pinched nerve anyway. He administered cortisone injections in my neck and cervical vertebrae and said I’d be much better in a few days.
I wasn’t. In fact, nothing was working, not the opiates, nor the cervical collar, nor heat, nor ice, nor stretching, nothing. For three weeks I barely slept or ate. I lost ten pounds in twenty days. Desperate, I went to a pain specialist. She diagnosed a myofascial injury to the tissues that connect my right shoulder to my spine; the area was inflamed and squeezing a nerve that ran through it. She changed my pain regimen and gave me a muscle relaxant to take at night. I was once again able to sleep. I started physical therapy.
What I didn’t do, however, was get better. In the ensuing weeks, I received a half a dozen cortisone injections, began receiving twice weekly massages and twice weekly physical therapy sessions. I managed to get through final exams. Still in an unbelievable amount of pain, I lost another ten pounds.
I was no longer able to drive more than a short trip, and never later than 2 or 3 PM. Writing and working on a computer were agonizing. By the evenings I was in so much pain I could not go anywhere or do anything, and I took to going to bed at 8 PM or earlier. Other than class and the rare occasion when a friend or family member came to take to me out, I was confined to my apartment. I had lost so much weight my clothes hung on me like cheap costumes. I went online and found some inexpensive items several sizes smaller that more or less fit, thinking I’d only need them for a month or two. (I’m still wearing them.) I avoided scales and mirrors. Proud of what I’d looked like before, muscular, at a healthy weight, I was now gaunt and frail. Still, I was sure that I was on the mend, as long as I kept doing what my doctors and therapists told me to do.
By late February, a full five months later, I had to face the fact that I was not getting any better. I’d managed to put on a few pounds, but I was still in near constant pain that showed no signs of abatement. I dropped a class and my few remaining extracurricular activities. I switched physical therapists and changed from cortisone injections to nerve blocks.
That’s where I am right now, as I start this blog. The pain is still quite intense, although we’re about to move into more aggressive therapies. Existing therapies have given me short-term relief – at least, a few hours; at most, a few days. Then the pain reasserts itself and I’m right back where I started.
I used to think I was sturdy. I’ve learned that I am fragile. I used to think I could control most of what happened in my life. I’ve learned that I can control very little. I used to think being stoic was an asset. I’ve learned it is a liability.
I used to suspect that chronic pain sufferers were wimps. I’ve learned that they are strong and courageous. This blog is for all of us who are, or care for, people in pain. Life is still life and must be lived.