Saturday, September 8, 2012

How I fixed my back pain the hard way: introduction

It was a typical afternoon in early spring, and in a room in a nondescript suburban office building, I was lying motionless on a table, with my right side up. My head rested on a small, firm, black cushion. Suspended about a foot above my head was a large mechanical instrument. A thin metal rod protruded from it, and the end of the rod was nestled between my earlobe and the skin of my neck. To anyone else, it would have looked like something out of a sci-fi movie.

I closed my eyes as the anticipation built. This was not the first time I had been on this table, under this device, and it wouldn't be the last. I took a deep breath and exhaled. A few seconds later, I heard the unmistakable metallic thunk. Along with the sound came the lightest touch I could imagine noticing on my skin. My doctor helped me sit up, then lie down again, on my back this time. Within seconds, I noticed the warmth in my forehead, like someone started shining a bright light across my eyebrows. This flowed throughout the rest of my face, into my cheeks, and eventually down my left arm and through my fingertips. I felt the muscles on the back of my neck slowly relax. I gently brought my feet together and noticed that the lumpy protrusions on the inside of my ankles lined up perfectly; there was a time when they had missed each other by an inch and a half. Within a few minutes, I began to feel how I imagined most "normal" people felt most of the time, in the absence of pain; in other words, I felt awesome!

I didn't know it at the time, but the constant discomfort I'd had in my upper back for most of my adult life would be almost completely gone for nearly a full year, in contrast to the few weeks of relief I'd come to expect. And the assortment of accompanying symptoms would be gone with it: the sudden seemingly random bursts of pain, the tingly sensation in my left hand, my swollen and tender jaw muscles when chewing... all of it would leave me alone, at least for a while.

I also didn't and couldn't have envisioned the way the pain would all return again, while doing something as innocuous as anything in daily life: watching a movie. I was lying in the same position as in my appointments, on my left side, but without having my head properly supported. My heart sank when - out of nowhere - I felt the unmistakable sensation of bones shifting in the back of my neck. Within a few minutes, my left hand felt slightly numb and the pulling sensation had returned to my upper back. The other symptoms also returned within a few hours, and living with them was a hundred times more agonizing after experiencing how good it feels to be without them.

This is the story of how I came to manage my chronic pain. It's a story filled with defeats and triumphs, mystery and intrigue, colorful characters, and yes, even romance. I should state up front that the amount of pain I was in can't compare to someone afflicted with fibromyalgia, muscular dystrophy, or even serious trauma. But it was enough to adversely affect my life, although that fact remained the elephant in the room for many years. It finally came to a head when, on a typical night out with friends, I found myself incessantly rotating my left shoulder to crack my back, just to comfortably sit in my chair. I was forced to admit to myself that the constant back cracking was not normal, and worse, that it was beginning to intrude on my professional life, my social life, even my sleep. It was as if I'd just realized a fly had been buzzing around my ear for as long as I could remember. But that night, I had no way of knowing just how complicated and involved my search for a flyswatter would prove to be. I also didn't realize that not only could my main complaint be resolved, but that many other things I didn't even know were wrong would also be fixed. I didn't fully grasp just how dramatically my quality of life would improve.

I write about my experience in the hope that someone else dealing with the same frustrating problem will find it useful, and may even find relief using what I've learned. I also hope to draw attention to what I think is a serious deficiency in our modern medical system: the vast chasm (both actual and perceived) between traditional and alternative approaches. I am a scientist, an atheist, a skeptic to the core. I find no merit in healing crystals or homeopathy. But without receiving a treatment that would surely be featured on Quackwatch (a site I will have many things to say about later), I would still be in pain today. Absolutely nothing exists on the allopathic side of medicine that could have addressed my underlying problem. And that fact is itself a problem.