A Long and Bumpy Road to Relief

A Long and Bumpy Road to Relief

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Back Pain!

A Long and Bumpy Road to Relief

I awoke one morning with a stiff neck from “sleeping funny.” Over the next several weeks, the stiffness, bordering on pain, came and went. Then at times, I’d feel a sudden intense spasm when I turned my head or looked up or down. I used over-the-counter remedies without success, finally prompting me to make an appointment with my doctor. I hoped to nip my “pain in the neck” in the bud.

The doctor prescribed physical therapy three times a week for eight weeks, but the discomfort persisted. Eventually, he ordered X-rays, an MRI, and an ultrasound which revealed some arthritic changes and disc degeneration. The next step was referral to a pain management specialist.

After reviewing the test results and examining me, that doctor scheduled me for a cervical epidural steroid injection in the hospital while under anesthesia. It seemed a little early for such an extreme measure, but I was willing to try it. The procedure had no effect, however, so the doctor prescribed analgesic medication and outlined exercises to perform at home.

After no improvement, it was back to the hospital to try a facet joint injection, again under anesthesia. Still no reprieve, so I continued with the medication and neck and back exercises.

I also began using a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit attached to the skin by adhesive pads and wires. That helped manage the pain but only for as long as I used the TENS unit, no more than an hour at a time. On the next few visits, the doctor injected increasing amounts of steroids into my neck, but those improved neither my worsening condition nor my mood.

Then it was on to acupuncture… six weeks of needles, needles, and more needles. The only benefit I received came from the soothing upper-body massage preceding each acupuncture treatment. Now the pain traveled intermittently from my neck up into the back of my skull and around to my throat. I was beginning to lose my sunny disposition.

After all of these failed measures, the pain management specialist referred me to a neurologist. After examining me, the neurologist prescribed even stronger meds. On my next office visit, he administered a nerve block. More time passed with no improvement. So he ordered a brain MRI and an electroencephalogram (EEG) to rule out the possibility of brain tumor or stroke as the underlying cause.

Preparing for an EEG is a tug-o-war between your mind’s wants and your body’s needs. I was instructed to try to remain awake all night so that comparison could be made the following morning between wakeful and sleeping brainwave activity. Since the goal was to fall asleep during the testing, I had to find a good support system to help me stay awake the night before.

I have a friend who is a night owl and doesn’t go to bed until at least 3:00 a.m. She said she’d call me before retiring for the night. Another friend is a runner who gets up around 5:00 a.m. for her morning jog. She agreed to call me as soon as she awoke. I have another friend who gets up frequently during the night to use the bathroom. She promised to call me every time she had to pee.

Earlier that evening, I’d worked my patrol shift as a volunteer with my local police department. Afterward, I wandered into dispatch to chat for a while before heading home. It was a fairly uneventful night, so they invited me to stay as long as I wished since I had to be up anyway. But I remembered the friends who said they’d call me periodically during the night. I decided to leave so they wouldn’t worry when my phone went unanswered.

I got home about 3:30 a.m. and watched a little TV, straightened up the house, and played endless games of Solitaire on the computer until a beautiful sunrise greeted me. My appointment wasn’t until 10:30 a.m. so I still had a lot of time to kill. Then the phone rang. It was the EEG technician asking if I could come in at 8:00 a.m. Oh, merciful Heavens, yes!

I drove the couple of miles to the facility where the technician got me settled comfortably in a recliner. She “glued” flat metal discs about the size of a nickel to strategic places on my scalp and lowered the room lights so I could drift off to blessed sleep. The sticky paste would wash out with a good shampooing afterward, she assured me. The electrodes were connected by wires to a machine that read my brainwaves to determine if the patterns were normal or abnormal. They could detect everything from stroke to brain tumor to epilepsy. I had none of these maladies. Good news, bad news. I was no closer to finding a solution to my neck pain.

I took matters into my own hands then and made an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon. I was able to see him within the week, armed with my bulging folder of medical data. He reviewed the information, examined me, and concluded that I had the aforementioned arthritic changes, bone spurs, and three herniated discs! The only viable solution at this point was a procedure called an anterior cervical discectomy and disc fusion. He’d remove the three offending discs (at levels C4, C5, and C6), and the bone spurs, through an incision made at the front of my neck. He would replace them with discs obtained from the bone bank, bracing them with a metal bracket and screws. The frontal incision would leave minimal scarring and less healing pain, he said.

I carefully weighed the pros and cons and then had the surgery, spending three days in the hospital. Once home, I ate only soft foods at first due to a sword swallower’s sore throat, even cutting the painkillers in half in order to down them. I wore a cumbersome cervical collar for six weeks and an electronic bone fusion stimulator attached to my neck by adhesive pads for six months. They became my new best friends, along with physical therapy and massive doses of patience.

So after all of these efforts, was it worth it? The spinal surgery was indeed the answer. I can turn my head once again, and I’m finally pain free. Hallelujah!

~ Annette Langer ~

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