A Former Exercise Fanatic's Guide to Dealing with Back Pain

Carolyn McFann

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The pain of sciatica is hard to fully describe. Just imagine being hit in the back and behind with a baseball bat, multiple times, at full force. O-u-c-h. For a newbie to serious back pain, it was a shock to go from fully fuctioning adult one minute, to flat on my back the next. Lightening bolts of stabbing pain were shooting down my left leg from the base of my spine. I couldn't do anything to be comfortable but sleep on the floor. The bed, massage recliner and sofa were all too unbearingly uncomfortable.

Dealing with the pain has been quite a challenge. All the actions I'd been previously been able to do such as sitting up, bending, lifting and twisting were no longer an option unless I didn't mind being zapped with more rapidly firing, searing bolts of agony. Lucky for me, I work at home, but since I couldn't sit up straight it was a help for my boyfriend to pull my recliner up to my desk, pull the slab of memory foam off my bed, and put it on top of the recliner to make it bearable. He made an incredibly effective makeshift “bed" for me to recuperate in a horizontal position as I worked from my computer at a very unusual angle. Workaholism is still possible even with sciatica.

In the past, I had back pain here and there, but nothing even close to this. There were many times I took too many grocery bags up to my apartment, all at once, without thought of what it was doing to my spine. Then, later, the pain would remind me that I shouldn't have done it. An ice pack later, it was usually healed. When I moved, I always took heavy boxes and carried them around. Then, later, would sit around frozen with pain due to doing too much. I bought a massage recliner and practically lived in it for a few days, that did the trick. This time, it was different. The pain didn't go away. Three weeks later, and the lightening bolts were still shooting through my leg and back. I'd ignored the slight numbness in my left leg the month before, and wondered if that was related to what was happening with my back. So, it was time to go to the doctor and stop trying to tough it out.

The orthopedic specialist I went to took x-rays and a CT scan to find the problem. It was a big job just walking from the car to his office, and I was grateful to be there. I winced in pain, standing in his office, his eyebrows raised in surprise as I struggled to get up on the examination table. He checked my reflexes and looked over the results of the tests. The diagnosis was sciatica, from a herniated or slipped disk. In other words, fluid had leaked from inside my lowest lumbar vertabra, and was hitting my sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is large and runs the length of the legs, so no wonder the pain was affecting my left leg that way. I was given presciptions to kill the pain and was sent to physical therapy.

Now, I'm at home recuperating, still flat on my back but slowly seeing progress in my abilities to function in everyday activities once again. It's a very slow process, and took the doctor choosing stronger medicines for me, but I am almost able to sit up now. Walking and bending are still tough, but every day I carefully do a little more. My physical therapy helps but it is like re-learning how to use my back all over again. It's pretty frustrating for a formerly athletic person who doesn't like to sit around for long periods of time. Word to the wise, be careful how you treat your back. And, when feeling strong pain, don't tough it out and wait for it to stop on your own. It's better to go get it checked.

Since this experience, I've had a lot of time on my hands to read about spine health online. There are some very helpful sites to learn from. If you have health issues and need support, try an online message board on whatever is ailing you. There, you will find support and information from others who have been through similar circumstances. It pays to know as much as you can about your ailment, so that you can understand what to expect in terms of treatment and recuperation. Ask your doctor questions and learn from the experience. Once the episode is over, you will be a more informed and grateful person. I know I am. I have a new appreciation for anyone who says they have a bad back, or has mobility problems. Taking a walk in others’ orthopedic shoes made me see the light. Learn from my pain, be good to your back.

Carolyn McFann is a scientific and nature illustrator, who owns Two Purring Cats Design Studio, which can be seen at: http://www.cafepress.com/twopurringcats . Educated at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, Carolyn is a seasoned, well-traveled artist, writer and photographer. She has lived and worked in Cancun, Mexico, among other interesting professional assignments in other countries. Clients include nature parks, museums, scientists, corporations and private owners. She has been the subject of tv interviews, articles for newspapers and other popular media venues.


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