Back Pain Update

For those of you who care, and for those of you who are going through the same thing, I thought I should update everyone on my back pain situation.

First of all, I have bad genetics when it comes to my spine. It seems that everyone in my family has some sort of Degenerative Disc Disease. I thought that I was preventing damage to my back by being active and athletic, but it seems that my attempts to prevent back pain may have advanced it faster than anyone else in my family. (This is speculation, since I have not had any type of annual x-rays of my spine; however, it explains a lot, as you shall see).

I have had issues with slipped discs in the past but the worst days I had I just missed a day or two of work or school. Two years ago I had a “flair up” of Sciatica (your disc is out of place and putting pressure on your sciatic nerve, causing pain, numbness, or tingling in the back of your leg and/or buttock). I had x-rays done but no one really told me what the results of the x-rays were. It got better on its own, and doing some Googling I learned a few exercises to do to help out my back. I was fine for 2 years.

Then, April 2014 I did a super intense Cycling class. I was so proud of myself. I had whipped my own butt in class so bad, that I was feeling my sciatic swelling up again. Whoops, I thought. Better ice it down and relax for a couple days.  Except I know that the best way to fix it is to work your abs and back to strengthen your core and push your disc back into place where it isn’t pushing on anything it ins’t supposed to. So I continued to work out, lifting weights that were heavy but being careful not to throw my body around like I see some people do at the gym, that makes my body hurt just watching them, sure that they are going to have a tendon shoot out of their arm and across the gym at any second…too graphic? Sorry. Anyway, I was about to go on vacation to Yellowstone National Park, so I wanted to be as healthy as possible. I was convinced that if I just strengthened everything before I went that my back would be better before we left.

What I should have done was very different. I should have let my back rest. Since you use your back for everything, using it extra while it’s swollen makes things worse. Not better. So while I thought I was doing good for myself, I was preventing it from healing.

I hate going to the doctor. Half the time they tell you what you already know. Other times you get better right after you saw them, and there wasn’t a point to going in the first place. So I avoided going to the doctor until we were 2 weeks away from our vacation. I realized I had to do something, but I didn’t just want a prescription for pain meds like I have gotten in the past – they didn’t help anything. So I went to a chiropractor instead. I had never been before so I thought I would give it a try. I felt great for the first few minutes after my sessions, but then everything felt like it was compressing, and started to hurt again.

I ran out of time before we went on vacation, but I was NOT about to cancel. My back wasn’t THAT bad, I kept telling myself.  Every day on the trip my back got worse and worse. In order to get out of the car, I would open the door, put out my legs, grab the roof of the car, and lift/swing my body out, and then slowly stand up. Each time the process took longer and longer. Until about Day 5 when I couldn’t stand it anymore. While watching wild wolves and talking to fellow photographers, I couldn’t enjoy what I was doing because I was in so much pain. I was practically cross-eyed with pain. I told Hubby we had to go to the doctor’s office in the park and we headed north toward the Mammoth Clinic. I even tried to get out of the car on our way there, to get some pictures of black bears on the side of the road, but I couldn’t handle it. The doctor wrote me a couple prescriptions for muscle relaxers and pain meds, but they didn’t do anything except knock me unconscious for the next 3 days. Our flight home was terribly painful, and stopping at every red light on the drive home was torture. Lovely, huh?

After a few more days of pain meds and rest with icing my back in between, I ended up going to the doctor and having some x-rays done again. While I was there, the doctor looked at my old file from 2 years before when I had x-rays done the first time. She showed me that I had scoliosis. Now, I know this is not an uncommon thing, but I was never told I had scoliosis. She also told me that I had severe arthritis which was causing constriction on my spinal cord. Questions running through my mind at this time: Has my back been crooked the whole time? Is it going to get worse? Am I ever going to be pain free again? Do I need surgery?! Needless to say, I freaked out a bit.

She wrote me another prescription for pain meds that didn’t do anything, and told me to see a specialist. I waited a couple weeks to see if my back would just get better on its own, and it did a little but not much.  He took more x-rays, and had some good news and some bad news. Good news was, my “scoliosis” was nothing to worry about. More than likely it was just caused by my pain – I couldn’t lie straight down on the x-ray table because I was in pain, so that was as straight as I could make my back without crying. Awesome!  Except, his bad news scared me even worse. He showed me my x-ray and said that I have practically no disc left between three of my lower vertebrae. I don’t have a swollen, bulging disc like I thought, I have multiple compressed discs which are pushing on my sciatic. Now, I have never had good luck with doctors and their bedside manner. But this guy seemed to take the cake. He asked me what I do for a living, so instead of telling him my job title because that doesn’t really tell him anything, I started to explain what my job was. “Every day is different. Some days I’m in front of a computer, some days I’m on my feet walking…” He interrupted me to ask his question again, as if I didn’t understand. “I’m an environmental scientist.” So then he asked what that meant. That’s why I started telling you the way I did, jerk! I have gotten that question enough that I know how to answer it! Anyway, so I told him that I carry heavy ladders some days and his response was, “oh, you can’t do that.” I’m sorry, are you telling me that I need to change careers?! Cuz, that’s kind of a big deal… But he didn’t write me any letters to my boss, excusing me from work, so I guess that’s not what he meant. He asked me what I have done to try to let this heal on my own, and when I told him I exercise, he practically laughed when he said, “what kind of exercises? You’re not doing Deadlifts, are you?!” I couldn’t believe it.  I couldn’t even imagine doing deadlifts without my back hurting and he’s being condescending?

I asked for some different options because going to doctors in the past, they don’t really seem to think of “options” just one thing for you to do. I asked about cortisone injections or anything else that might help, and it was like a light went on in his head when he thought of a solution – nerve pain meds. Not NSAIDS, but actual nerve pain meds – Lyrica. I couldn’t believe that this hadn’t been brought up as an option before. My sciatic nerve was hurting, so why didn’t they try this FIRST?!

Of course like any medicine that has a commercial, the list of side effects is long and scary. But when you are in pain it’s worth a try. I used it as prescribed for a month and did exercises and physical therapy between (not tough exercises, I learned my lesson). I went back for my recheck and the doctor told me that I should use the Lyrica if I need to, and if I need more after the prescription runs out I can either get more, or they can “explore other options” (i.e. injections or surgery). So after my recheck I decided to reduce my doses to see what my back would do, and I haven’t had a single dose for a week. My back feels amazing! The Lyrica took the pain away enough for me to exercise and gain the strength back that I needed to keep my discs where they need to be. I had a couple side effects (weight gain, tired easily, sometimes I felt numb, and didn’t seem to think clearly all the time), but nothing I couldn’t stand and nothing that was permanent (i have already lost the weight and I feel much more alert).

The only thing I still can’t do is run, and I really miss running. I still have degenerating discs, and I will probably need surgery in the future, but hopefully I can hold out for a long, long time. Technology is only getting better, and surgical procedures take a lot of technology.

So, if you are having similar issues here are some things to remember:

1. Doctors are busy. You are probably going to have to do some research on your own, and go prepared with questions and suggestions, because they have a million things going through their heads and probably won’t think of your best solution.

2. Use your insurance. I am always afraid of what things are going to cost, going to the doctor. But you have to remember it’s your health and it’s important. You pay for insurance for a reason, so take advantage of it when you need to.

3. Take it easy, but not too easy. Bed rest is good for your back, but only for a day or 2. After that, your back will start to seize up and will take much, much longer to heal if you don’t move around a little bit.

4. Ice is better than heat. Heat is great for taking out certain aches and pains, but if you use it too much it will increase inflammation and make the pain worse. When in pain, ice it first.

5. Finally, I am not a doctor. I am writing this basically to remember what happened, explain everything to the few people who have asked what happened, and give some advice if you are having a similar problem. But I am not a doctor – this is just a stupid travel blog, so if you take this advice to a T and it doesn’t work for you, don’t blame me, I was just trying to help! 🙂 When I was trying to research sciatica before I went to the doctor, I never found anything even similar to this post, so I’m hoping that I can help people in the future who are trying to learn why they are in so much pain, and what they can do about it.

So cheers to good health!

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