Nerve Pain: A little “Back”story.

Pardon the pun in the blog title, but I wanted to take a beat away from talking about my gardening projects, or sharing recipes that I enjoy, or any of that stuff, to actually share a little bit about myself and the past year of my life so that you might have some context for references in blog posts that I anticipate are coming in the future.

The theme of this past summer for me was “well, there’s always next summer”.

Early on in the spring, I injured my back. At first, I thought it was a muscle sprain. Then it was very localized, and started manifesting in various ways that had me scrambling to a doctor for fear that I had kidney stones. A quick visit to the ER (and a urologist) and a few tests later, and it was determined that I did not have kidney stones. Lots of pain relievers, muscle relaxers, and anti-inflammatories were prescribed, and they helped a little but I just couldn’t seem to shake the pain. Then I started developing pain in my left leg, and my ankle, and my hip, and I didn’t realize these things were related until I finally had a doctor that accurately traced the line down my leg exactly where the pain was. “That,” she said, “is your sciatic nerve.”

I was slowed down, at that point, but still moving fairly well. I exhibited a significant weakness in the left leg, toes that occasionally were vaguely numb, sharp pain in the ankle and in the back of the knee. It hurt to sit for long periods of time, and I spent a lot of time at work at a standing desk. Despite the awkward arrangements, at least I was fortunate enough to have a job that accommodated all the arrangements I would need to make and appointments I needed to make.

Literal Breaking Point

I had a first appointment my physical therapy, and was given a laundry list of issues that I was exhibiting… mostly related to the fact that I’d been spending several weeks limping around and carrying myself improperly as a response to the pain. I was given some activities to do at home, but was generally feeling fine… until later that day. While doing some light work outside by the patio garden with the dogs, I did something fairly inconsequential – something like a cough, or a sneeze – and nearly dropped to the ground from the sharp pain in my back that accompanied it. It subsided a bit, and I managed to hobble around the rest of the evening… until about 3 or 4am the next morning, when I basically woke up screaming and sobbing in pain. Everytime I tried to stand up on my own, I got extremely light headed and blacked out. My partner pulled some of the painkillers I had been prescribed to help me at least get back to sleep, and by morning I was managing enough to drag myself to the doctor. Stop physical therapy, they recommended; we’re going to escalate to the next level of tests.

This general pattern continued for three months; I traveled through a cycle of tests in a slow series of escalation; ruling out various things and trying to determine how serious the problem was until I ultimately was sent for an MRI and to see a neurosurgeon to read the results. Apparently, everything else was essentially biding time for this magical three month period; in instances of back pain, they tend to wait for three months for any potential inflammation to subside to see what symptoms persist. (In a back injury, swelling from the injury could be responsible for the pressure being placed on the nerve, and it can take up to three months for that to go down. Apparently in a lot of cases, but the end of three months the problem has subsided.)

Final verdict

My most serious fear at that point was of spending months in a laborious series of therapy and exercises, but I wasn’t that lucky. I had a herniated disc in my lower spine that was beyond physical therapy; I could attempt pain management with a serious of periodic injections for the rest of my life to avoid surgery – or I could go ahead with the surgery. There’s always a risk that the surgery wouldn’t work, or even that it could potentially make the issue worse… but I was informed that if I decided to try pain management first and decided to pursue the surgery later, then it would likely be less effective. The longer I would wait, the more permanent the damage may become. The tissue that erupted from the disc was inside the spinal column and peering pressure on the nerve. It needed to be surgically removed.

My mother came down for the surgery to help during the recovery phase, and besides having to stay overnight because I took longer than anticipated to come out of anesthesia, it was a remarkable success. No complications, a dramatic relief from the pain and a fairly speedy recovery.

Two weeks into December I was out Christmas shopping when the back pain returned. I was hoping it was simply muscle strain and waited for out west off through the holidays. Then around New year’s eve the leg pain returned and increased remarkably every day. Considering all the family events I missed over the summer, it’s a small blessing that it waited until after the holidays to resume. Now I have a follow up with my neurosurgeon on Thursday to restart the process of determining what is going on, but a few internet searches have not left me very optimistic that this will not work it’s easy to another surgery. My fear now is having to live with the pain another three months again, but considering how much I underestimated a worst case scenario last time I’m nervous to even speculate in the back of my mind. Wish me luck, folks; I could use the positive karma.

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