I will never forget April 11, 2018. That is the day my pain journey began, the day I became a patient. I’ve actually been a patient a few times in my life. I delivered two babies, had my gallbladder removed, and I’ve had a couple of oral surgeries. However, those experiences pale in comparison. My prior encounters as a patient had defined endpoints with predictable outcomes. All were associated with pain that responded to traditional medical interventions. Teeth can be repaired (or replaced), it turns out I didn’t really need my gallbladder and, of course, my daughters were worth every painful contraction. None of that could have prepared me for what was to come.
I have a very high pain tolerance and I am fiercely independent. Both of these traits were challenged as I dealt with severe, constant, intractable pain. It started with mild stiffness in my neck upon awakening one morning. Two days later, I had severe pain over my left shoulder blade. I had to walk with my head down because I could barely extend my neck. Every movement caused pain. Thinking about moving seemed to cause pain.
I scoured the contacts in my phone looking for the chiropractor one of my friends had recommended for my teenaged daughter over a year ago. I never made that appointment. Prior to this experience, I will admit to being somewhat skeptical about non-traditional medical therapy. Yet, in a moment punctuated by both irony and desperation, I instinctively knew that a medical doctor could not help me. Click To Tweet
My friend’s chiropractor wasn’t available, but within minutes of posting in a private Facebook group, I had a recommendation from an esteemed physician colleague for a chiropractor 20 minutes from my home. To my delight, he could see me that afternoon. The chiropractor was upbeat, funny, and very knowledgeable. He informed me that I had a severe spasm of my left trapezius muscle, a large muscle that covers most of the upper back as well as the back of your neck. He commented several times that I had “really messed myself up”, and that my body was “very angry”, but felt he could help. Three visits and $240 later, there was no improvement and I was absolutely miserable.
Another physician friend recommended a wonderful neuromuscular massage therapist. Neuromuscular therapy, also known as trigger point myotherapy, consists of applying pressure to areas of muscle spasm to get the muscle to relax, which subsequently relieves the associated pain. Unfortunately, after three visits (total cost $270), there was no improvement. Near the end of my last session, he told me that I was “one of the worst cases he had ever seen”. I did not want that distinction. I just wanted to feel better.
I made several trips to my local pharmacy searching for something to help ease the pain. I tried ibuprofen, acetaminophen, naproxen, mentholated creams, homeopathic ointments, ice packs, and heating pads without relief. I was homebound, except for medical appointments and the occasional brief trip to the grocery store. I stopped cooking, I was unable to do any meaningful housework and showering and getting dressed became a daily challenge. I had to modify my work schedule, as typing on the computer for more than 1-2 hours at a time caused excruciating pain.
Due to significant frustration and a desire to get a handle on my out-of-pocket expenses, I decided to explore the services available through my health insurance. I made an appointment with my primary care physician ($50 copay) and cried in her office like a baby. She was patient and empathetic. She referred me to a chiropractor in my insurance company’s network, ordered an X-ray of my neck, and arranged appointments with a physical therapist ($50 copay) and pain management specialist ($70 copay) for that afternoon. She also started me on oral narcotics, steroids, and a prescription-strength anti-inflammatory medication in an attempt to provide some relief of my severe pain. The narcotics and the muscle relaxant made me groggy but did not alleviate the 10/10 pain. 4 days into my course of steroids, there was still no improvement. Ice was the only thing that seemed to provide temporary relief.
I returned to the pain specialist ($70 copay) for a trigger point injection. This involves injecting the painful part of a muscle with both a numbing medication and steroids to reduce inflammation. I should have experienced pain relief within 25 minutes of the injection, but hours later there was no change. Despite three sessions (total cost $150) with my new chiropractor, the severe pain persisted and I had gained only minimal improvement in mobility. I began to feel helpless and hopeless.
The next step was an MRI of my cervical (neck) spine, which revealed the cause of my symptoms- two bulging discs and severe narrowing of the joints due to arthritis. By this time, I was having some discomfort in my left arm, a sign that the nerves leaving my spinal cord were being pinched. I continued taking the anti-inflammatory medication and had almost finished the steroid taper, but my neck and shoulder pain persisted. I was referred to a spine surgeon. At the advice of my chiropractor, I also scheduled an appointment with the pain specialist for a cervical spine steroid injection. To my surprise and delight, the day before my appointment with the surgeon the symptoms began to improve! Several days later I was feeling even better and I canceled my appointment for the spine injection. I could finally see the light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
You are welcome to arrive at your own conclusions, but I am convinced my recovery is a result of prayer-the prayers of friends, family, church members and, yes, even the ones I uttered through my tears. Click To Tweet
It’s been 6 weeks since this ordeal began. I continue to recuperate. What I experience now can best be described as discomfort. I feel it every day, but it no longer interferes with my daily activities. I’m not taking any medications and I’ve resumed all of my activities with the exception of the gym. (I’m going today!)
Early in the course of my illness, I decided I would use what I learned to help others. I was determined to find something positive in a sea of negativity. Everyone’s pain journey is unique and I do not presume to speak for others in the chronic pain community, many of whom continue to suffer excruciating pain without relief in sight. I can only share what I learned.
I now understand why chronic pain is often described as an “invisible illness”. Click To Tweet I understand how unrelenting physical pain turns into emotional turmoil. I learned that effective pain treatment requires a multidisciplinary approach and that medical doctors and patients need to be open to alternative therapies. I learned that being sick is expensive. I learned that many individuals with chronic pain suffer due to either a lack of access to healthcare or the inability to pay. I learned that needing help is not a sign of weakness, but an opportunity for friends and family to demonstrate love and appreciation in meaningful ways. Click To Tweet
Being ill helped me to appreciate the health I took for granted every day. I will carry these lessons with me forever and hope that I never have to learn them in this way again.
I documented my journey with chronic pain in a 7-part Facebook Live video series entitled, “When the Doctor Becomes the Patient”. Head on over to my Facebook page and check it out.