My Back Pain Helped Me Get Healthy
My experience with back pain was life-changing, in a good way. Granted, it was a painful lesson to learn. But I’m a healthier, happier person because of it. And like all good stories, it started with “an incident.”
Severe back pain usually involves a big memorable, moment when the pain is too intense to ignore any more. If you’ve ever thrown your back out, you know what I mean. I had been having some sharp pain in my right buttock for several months, but it was mostly an annoying distraction. Then one morning while I was getting out of bed for work, “the incident” happened.
I felt an intense pain in my lower back and then my right leg seized up. My right quadriceps contracted and pulled my whole body down so I was hunched over my leg. I looked like Elle Wood doing the bend and snap in Legally Blonde. So, there I am in my pajamas and I can’t stand up straight and my leg is killing me. Before I subjected myself to an awkward moment with a paramedic, I called my dear friend Ashley to see if she’d take me to the ER. She picked me up and helped me hobble to the car.
By the time we got to the hospital my muscles were relaxing a bit. But now I couldn’t feel my right shin. It was totally numb! This was getting scary. The ER doctors were very nice and gave me an injection in my right bun to relax my muscles. After my leg calmed down, I was able to walk to the car and go home. But I was completely baffled by what had happened and quickly made an appointment to see my primary care physician.
My primary care physician knew something was up with my back and leg, possibly sciatica. She got me a referral for an MRI. Lucky for me, my insurance was with what was then Crawford Long (now Emory University Hospital Midtown) and their care system was robust. It was easy for my care providers to share my records and refer me to the specialists I needed. When I got my MRI results, they showed I had a slight herniation in my L4 disc. I didn’t know what that meant, except that it still hurt. I looked to my doctors for advice on what to do next to alleviate this pain (which was starting to make me pretty cranky!).
Personally, I think messing around with your spine is kind of scary. That’s why I wanted to start with the least invasive treatment first. Again, my primary care physician at Crawford Long was able to refer me to a fantastic physical therapist who hooked me up to electrodes every week and worked out my back and leg muscles. He also gave me exercises to do at home. I did them religiously every morning before work. I continued physical therapy for a few months and felt slightly better, but not enough. I was still experiencing sciatic pain in my leg and my numb shin persisted.
I finally went back to my primary care doctor to talk about other options. The next step was a lumbar epidural steroid injection. Yikes! But I was tired of dealing with chronic back pain and thought I’d give it a try—even though the thought of sometime sticking a needle in my spine terrified me. Again, I got an awesome referral from my doctor and the spine center team put me at ease immediately. They were pros at this and procedure didn’t even really hurt. It helped reduce my pain for maybe a week, but then my sciatica symptoms came back in full force. Ugh. Now I was really frustrated, because I had been in pain for nearly six months.
The Turning Point
This is where it starts to get good. My primary care physician had run out of non- or slightly-invasive options. Her next step was to send me to a neurosurgeon in the same care system who could quickly access my MRI records and give me a recommendation. He was very knowledgeable and did a great job of explaining what he saw in my MRI. He agreed that he saw a slight disc herniation, but he didn’t think it was necessarily bad enough to warrant back surgery.
I am so grateful that he had a conservative approach. His hesitancy made me take a step back and continue to try alternative therapies to see if I could resolve my lower back pain without surgery. For the next few months I dove back-first into reiki, acupuncture, kinesiology and even more lower back exercises. Over time, my patience paid off and my pain went away. I even got 90% of the feeling back in my shin!
Today, I am so happy I was open-minded enough to explore alternative therapies instead of jumping into surgery right away. My persistence paid off and my back pain got better. And I got healthier! In the process of doing back exercise every morning, I lost 20 pounds and kept it off. I also learned that exercising in the morning works best for me. Exploring alternative wellness taught me that acupuncture, massage and energy work can boost your immune system, and I swear it keeps me from catching colds. I still get treatments to this day to keep my body in tip-top shape. Finally, the experience gave me a new appreciation for my mobility. Not a day goes by where I don’t feel grateful for being able to stand and walk and move about in this world.
What would I recommend to someone who’s experiencing back pain? Listen to your doctor’s advice carefully, because they know what they’re doing. But remember you are a unique patient and you need to find what works best for you. Don’t be afraid to try alternative therapies. Listen to your body and be patient. Dig a little deeper to find the root of your pain. I learned from my research that sometimes there are true physical causes, but there are often emotional causes like stress. It’s worth doing your homework to uncover what’s really causing your issues before jumping into an invasive treatment. And at the very least, try to feel grateful for what doesn’t hurt right this minute.