Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - March 25, 2011

I feel your pain!



Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a! Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a! Rat-a-tat-a-tat-a!

If you've ever had an MRI - magnetic resonance imaging - scan, those sounds are familiar ones. I had one two weeks ago.

I was familiar with MRIs, having gone through many of them. One in 1997 lasted nearly six hours. They gave me Valium so I could handle that one. It isn't that an MRI is painful. In fact, other than the sounds, it's downright boring, making the required lying without moving the only tough part. In my case, I'm somewhat claustrophobic, so being inside a tube that long is not my idea of fun.

My latest MRI was a piece of cake. The process from start to finish took just a bit more than 15 minutes.

Our doctor had ordered an MRI because he was certain I had herniated a disc in my lower spine a few days before. After wincing empathetically at such news, you might ask, "So how did you hurt your back?"

Carrying something that was too heavy would be a reasonable answer. Not lifting with my knees might be another. An automobile accident or staying in some yoga-flexing position a tad too long are others.

The actual answer is far more mundane. It happened doing something that didn't involve my back at all ... or so I thought. I coughed! That's it - nothing more exciting.

It hurt a bit at the time, but I thought it would quickly pass.

It didn't!

A week after the coughing incident, I awoke and told Art I wouldn't be going to work that day. I then went back to sleep, hoping a couple of additional hours would work some magic.

It didn't!

So, I dragged myself out of bed, thinking being up and taking a shower would help.

It didn't!

In fact, by the time I had finished the shower, the pain was so bad I thought I would faint. I called Art and he said to make an appointment with our doctor immediately.

The doctor and his intern did various tests. They checked my reflexes and ran a feathery tool up and down my legs and feet. It tickled in most spots, but I couldn't feel it in others. They asked me to stand and bend in various directions. Bending forward and backward hurt. They had me stand on my tiptoes and on my heels. My right foot gave way in both instances.

Doc prescribed some pain pills and ordered the MRI, which couldn't be scheduled until three days later. I stayed home those three days, alternating between resting in bed, sitting up, standing and walking around.

With both brother Dave and my Dad having had back problems, I wasn't exactly unfamiliar with all of this. But I was surprised how many family members and friends who heard about my diagnosis had back problems themselves or knew of someone else who did.

A friend has had back pain off and on for years.

A woman at work said her daughter has three herniated discs and the only things that relieve the pain are rest and ice. Another woman said heat combined with spinal decompression cured her.

Another colleague said I shouldn't lie around too much because it would just make me stiff and even more uncomfortable.

Dave, who had epidural injections - a shot into the spinal area containing a steroid - and three back surgeries before he found relief, said to avoid surgery if at all possible.

A co-worker said he was experiencing similar problems two years ago. He said it hurt the most when sitting, so he did a lot of standing. His doctor prescribed physical therapy, but it offered no relief. Then he prescribed an epidural injection, but it offered only slight relief. Then, he went to a chiropractor who "thumped around" on his back a few times and sent him on his way.

After that treatment, he could hardly drive, but immediately went straight to a new spinal decompression place. The doctors there read his MRI and signed him up for eight weeks of spinal decompression. At the end of the eight weeks, he said he felt a little better. He estimated on his exit form that the pain was still about 85 percent of what it was when he began the treatments.

By that time, it was late summer, so he tried one more thing: acupuncture. He went through a half-dozen or so of those treatments at a chiropractor and then stopped because (a) they didn't seem to be doing much at all, and (b) the insurance company wouldn't pay for any more. He said by this time, it was September and he still didn't have a lot of relief. Then, in October, he was sitting at a convention on a hard institutional chair and noticed that he didn't hurt.

"Bottom line," he said, "I don't know if the spinal decompression with exercise and epidurals, acupuncture or a combination of these things, or simply time made it go away. I still have some residual pain, and probably always will, but it isn't constant and isn't intolerable when it occurs.

"I don't want to depress you, but just to let you know what I tried. Your mileage may vary. In fact, a lot of people who went through the spinal decompression reported being mostly pain-free after the treatments. Some people get almost instant relief from an epidural. There are those who swear by acupuncture. My advice: do whatever is necessary, short of surgery. At one point, the pain was so intense that if the doctor had recommended amputation from the neck down, I probably would have done it. Everything I read, however, said surgery is generally the absolute last thing you want to do because it is so invasive and the relief is often temporary, if at all. I certainly didn't want to go through that just to be in the same condition as before."

His comments underlined the uncertainty of treatments available for back pain. In fact, while my doctor was checking me over, he mentioned that most cases resolve themselves with no treatment at all - "if you can afford to spend 12 weeks lying on the beach."

Since then, my pain level has dropped and I'm hoping it continues to do so. It's a wait-and-see situation. But I've learned one thing: there are a lot of people out there who can feel my pain!

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