A few days after returning home from San Francisco, my neck and arm still ached, so I thought I should stretch out those muscles by cleaning my entire house. The next day, July 4th, I was at urgent care trying hard not to weep in front of the doctor. He diagnosed a torn shoulder muscle, gave me a muscle relaxer and a prescription NSAID and sent me home. The prescriptions did nothing. I could not lie down at all, and even when propped up on the sofa, I could not sleep for the searing pain from my neck to my left hand. After a few days of this, David convinced me to see Dr. Nick, his chiropractor.
I had never been to a chiropractor before and had been raised to believe that they were not real doctors. David, however, had been in a serious car accident as a teenager and had had years of positive experiences with them. Not only did I not think a chiropractor would do me any good, I was terrified of anyone who would take your head in his hands and jerk it to the side until it cracked! I had seen all the movies, after all. People die like that! Even little Alice twisted off the head of the evil vampire, James, when he tried to kill Kristen Stewart, who was already dead, as far as I could see—but that’s another story.
Furthermore, my co-worker, John, told me all about what his chiropractor did for him, and advised me to take pain medication about an hour before my appointment. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think my chiropractor just wants to see how much pain I can endure.” So helpful.
However, I gathered up my courage and went into the office, where they took x-rays and showed me that I had two compressed discs in my cervical spine—which is in your neck, not where you’d think. Furthermore, my neck looked like a ruler, rather than a graceful swan, and the doctor said that I’d been building up arthritis in my neck for about ten years. I was in stage one of three, but with treatment, I would not end up with the dowager hump that my mom and grandma endured. Then they started me on my first chiropractic treatment.
First, they put me face-down on a black table and pasted electrodes onto my back. That was unexpected. It was really difficult to lie flat anyway, and then suddenly, I had spiders crawling all over my back! I quickly whined to the nurse, “That muscle is going to spasm!” Yes, she said. That was the point. They were trying to wear out the muscle with electricity so that it would relax later, and would I like for her to turn the machine higher? No! I was thinking, why would I want to add pain to my pain? This was not at all what I thought would be happening.
The second station was the intersegmental traction table, or roller table. I lay on my back while a roller went up and down the table, stretching out my spine. After ten minutes, I felt as if I’d been marinated and tenderized, ready for the main course.
He cracked my neck to the left, and I gasped! He cracked it to the right, and I gasped again. Then my back cracked, all the way down, and I’m sure I said, “Oh!” or “Ooph!” every time. My husband heard me from the hall; I hope I didn’t drive away any patients. The big news is that I made it through my first chiropractic treatment, and I felt… worse.
The next day found me in my long-time primary care physician’s office. I poured out my whole sob story to her, and she responded, “Well, Cheryl, as we get older…” and I interrupted, “No, no, I don’t want to go there.” Then she showed me diagrams of the spine and the nerves going down my arm. I respond well to pictures. She told me that the only one who could cure me was, indeed, the chiropractor, and assured me that mine was one of the best. And then—bless her!— she wrote me a prescription for a Z-pack of prednisone and 10 hydrocodone tablets. She believed me when I said I was in pain.
The prednisone worked beautifully, even though it made my legs look like elephant legs. At night, I found out that hydrocortisone will, without fail, give you six straight hours of sleep. I am really not sure if it does anything for pain, though. I would wake up, feel horrible pain, and go right back to sleep. When you need to go to work the next day, six hours of sleep can get you through.
Thank goodness I had heard from my long-term, trusted doctor, because the next two months were rugged. I came home a couple of times bruised and crying to my husband, “I can’t believe that I’m paying someone to beat me!” I noticed that my chiropractor wrote on my chart: “VERY GENTLE ONLY” in all caps and highlighted in yellow. I think that translates to “THIS ONE IS A BIG BABY,” but hey, I can’t help it. One time he adjusted my shoulder and sent me straight into excruciating pain, so he sat me down and gave me acupuncture. I had always wondered whether there was any validity to the claims about acupuncture, but I was willing to do anything at that point. Within a minute and a half, I had no pain there at all. I am a believer! I’ve had acupuncture about a dozen times since.
After a couple of weeks, they added ultrasound therapy to the treatment mix. I thought, “Now this is quackery for sure. Every woman knows that ultrasounds are for pregnancy!” I knew that doctors also used it for examining internal organs for stones and other problems. However, I looked it up later (because that’s what librarians do) and saw that ultrasounds have been used in sports medicine for years to break up scar tissue in muscles. In chiropractic therapy, it loosens up the muscles so that they will stop pulling your spine back out of line after your adjustment. I don’t know why it doesn’t also dissolve your muscles and tendons, though.
So, I have been going to the chiropractor twice a week for about ten weeks now, and I am a big fan. The healing has been slow, but fairly steady. When my symptoms changed, he listened and adjusted the treatment to be more effective. It took about four weeks to be able to sleep in a bed all night, and I still ended up on the sofa now and then for two more weeks. I am religious about keeping up with the stretches and band exercises at home, and you might catch me in the ladies’ room doing stretches at work when I’ve been sitting for too long. As you can tell, I can type longer than before (although it took three sessions to type this post), and I can walk from the parking lot to the building without feeling as if someone is stabbing me in the back of the neck. One of the worst side effects of this episode has been that my exercise walking has come to a complete halt. I had been walking two or three miles a day in the spring, and had lost about thirty pounds, ten of which have found me again. So discouraging!
I still have a periodic buzzing numbness in my left arm—not very often, but enough to be annoying. Next week will be a milestone: I will drop to one visit per week! There were times this past summer when I thought I would never live without chronic pain again, but now I have hope, as well as tremendous respect for those who live with debilitating diseases and still manage to smile and speak kindly to other people.
Got back pain? Don’t suffer and don’t be afraid. Let me introduce you to my new best friend.
Bed of nails photo by Herbert Ponting, 1907.