As many readers will know, I suffered a work-related back injury in 2004. After two surgeries, I was left with a fused spine and permanent damage to my sciatic nerve. I’ve been in constant pain, 24/7/365, since the date of injury, with just one glorious, all-too-brief break in 2005, when I was given an epidural injection of steroids to see if it would reduce inflammation in my spine. (It didn’t.) A spinal anesthetic was part of the treatment, which numbed everything below my waist, including the damaged nerve. That was the last time I remember being pain-free. It’s been my constant companion since then.
I’ve tried many things to control the pain, and live my life despite it. They’ve ranged from cocktails of various prescription narcotics, through physiotherapy, to actually seriously considering cutting the damaged nerve and (if necessary) amputating the affected limb. (That didn’t go anywhere.) The medical advice I was given was, in so many words, to “suck it up” and accept it. Unfortunately, that led to other complications, including a severe drug interaction between some of the medications I was prescribed, leading to massive weight gain and major metabolic problems. It hasn’t been fun.
Eventually, I got fed up with doing what the doctors were telling me. It was killing me slowly. I had to find a better way. For the past nine months I’ve basically thrown my doctors’ recommendations out of the window and followed my own path. It’s led to increased pain, but also increased mastery of my own body, and for the first time in a long time I’m feeling relatively human again.
The core of my new approach has been strength training at Mark Rippetoe‘s gymnasium, following the Starting Strength program. It hasn’t been easy, and my progress has been much slower than “normal” beginners, but from the perspective of one who’s been half-crippled for a long time, it’s been nothing short of remarkable. I owe Mark and his coaches, particularly Carmen, a huge debt of gratitude for taking me on, with all my challenges and difficulties, and helping me to overcome them.
Despite my early progress, I began to find, a couple of months ago, that I was hitting a wall. My damaged sciatic nerve and its associated problems were causing me more and more pain as I pushed them further and further. I couldn’t see a way past this, until I asked for the help of a chiropractor who also attends Mark’s gym. He understands the mechanics of our exercises from personal experience, and can therefore use his training and education to analyze, diagnose and help solve the issues that have been holding me back.
What’s emerged is that pain such as mine – centered around damaged nerves and skeletal structure – has far more wide-reaching effects than I’d ever considered. The sciatic nerve, when irritated and inflamed, affects muscles all around it, up and down the leg. (See, for example, piriformis syndrome, one of my difficulties.) Those muscles, in turn, when irritated, exert an unhealthy influence on other muscles to which they’re attached. I’d never considered that my diaphragm might be overstressed by a thigh muscle, but that’s apparently one of the problems I’ve been having; and because the diaphragm was overstressed, it was pulling ribs out of alignment, which was affecting my spine above the fusion site, which was . . . you get the idea.
I’ve got a long way to go yet, but I’m already seeing light at the end of the tunnel. If the strained, overstressed muscles affected by my nerve damage can be relaxed, they’ll stop pulling other muscles and skeletal components out of alignment, and I’ll hopefully be able to break through the “plateau” I seem to have hit in strengthening my body, and move on to the next level. This isn’t reducing my nerve pain – in fact, it’s greatly increasing it during treatment! – but it’s helping me to understand just how various elements in my body interact (or fail to do so) under the impact of nerve pain. I’ll still have to rely on painkillers, but better posture, greater ease of movement, and a more smoothly functioning body should help me stay mobile and healthy for much longer than would otherwise have been the case.
If I hadn’t embarked on this journey, I think I’d have been in a wheelchair before long, and perhaps bedbound a year or two after that . . . and it’s very hard to come back once one accepts those restrictions. I’d much rather live with greater pain, and push myself, and remain as healthy as possible. I’d therefore like to encourage any of my readers who are also in constant pain, to consider pushing their limits as far as they’re able to go. It may be difficult physically, but it may also help you bear your burdens and regain some of your humanity. IMHO, that’s worth the cost. I also think it’s a heck of a lot healthier to do that than to simply increase one’s medication level, and let the medical system consign you to early oblivion! That’s the easy way out, but you end up a physical and mental vegetable. I can’t – I won’t – accept that.
This is also helping me to write more, and hopefully better as well. I’m almost finished a military science fiction trilogy that I began on the spur of the moment last December, and I’m looking forward to bringing it out soon. If my increased productivity continues, I’ll be able to produce more work, and earn a better living for myself and Miss D. (who brings her own part as well, of course). I hate the “soggy brain syndrome” that excessive pain produces in me. If I can become healthier in body, then perhaps, in spite of the ongoing pain, I can have a healthier and more creative mind as well, as Juvenal put it.
Food for thought. I hope it helps some of you who may suffer from similar issues. In particular, if you’re struggling with health issues that the medical profession doesn’t seem able to solve, consider the Starting Strength program. There are gyms offering training in many states, and online coaching is available if there’s no gym in your area. Miss D. and I can testify from our own experience that the program really is worth all the time, effort and money it will cost you.