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Living With Chronic Back Pain


How much do you know about chronic pain? Have you ever experienced it? How long have you had to deal with your chronic pain? I've lost count of the number of years I've had my pain. I'm sure I could tell you if I sat down and really thought about it, but I frequently find it hard to concentrate or even remember things. I'm told this is a side effect of living with chronic pain. I don't know but I can say that when my pain is strong enough, I feel like I'm disconnected from everything around me. It sort of feels like being in a fog. I also feel easily irritated and just OFF. I don't know how else to explain it. 

I was around 14 or 15 the first time I experienced problems with my back. No, I'm not making that up. Yes, I know that was young to be having back problems. I don't remember much about it. I'm pretty sure it was the summer between eighth grade and ninth but I could be wrong. I woke up in the middle of the night because I needed to use the restroom. I remember having an intense, shooting pain go down the backs of both legs when I tried to stand up. I remember crawling to the bathroom and crawling back to bed, it hurt so much and I was scared, but I remember reasoning with myself that whatever was happening would be okay in the morning. I don't know if it's important, but my bed was actually just a mattress on the floor. 

Anyway, when I woke up the next morning the pain was still there and I still couldn't stand up. I crawled into my mom's room and told her what was going on. I had to CRAWL down our stairs. Looking back, I'm actually surprised I managed to keep it together so well without falling apart or freaking out. Go Me! She took me to our local emergency room department and the student doctor on shift decided that all I needed was to have my back cracked and I'd be fine. Did he run any diagnostic tests first? NO. I wish I could remember what his name was! Then again, I guess it really doesn't matter in the long run. He forced me into a standing position and cracked my back. THE PAIN WAS SO MUCH WORSE but I was able to stand and walk. He said the pain would go away in time...

The pain DID NOT go away in time. Or to be more accurate, it didn't go away for long and never stayed away. My mom had me in and out of doctor's offices for the next several years, but none of the doctors could figure out why I was in so much pain or how to help me. I should point out that I live in a relatively rural area.

In my senior year of high school (I was 18) my dad was able to get me in with his surgeon, Dr. Henry H. Hood. The doctor met with me once and decided to order an MRI: a test none of the other doctors I had seen over the years had bothered to order. Any guesses as to what the MRI showed? No? I'll tell you. My first ever MRI showed herniated discs and BONE FRAGMENTS. YAY ME!! (Not) While I have no opinion on the herniated discs, it is my strong opinion that those bone fragments came from when that E.R. doctor decided to crack my back. 

Yes, you read that right. I have NO IDEA what it was that screwed my back up that first time. Innumerable people have asked me this question over the years and I just don't have an answer. I've tried to remember what I might have done but I can't. All I remember is what I've already told you. I woke up in the middle of the night in massive pain and couldn't stand up. 

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, upon seeing the MRI, Dr. Hood immediately decided that I needed surgery but it was the middle of my senior year and I really wanted to try to finish it. He gave me stronger pain medicine, we did a round of steroid injections to help get me through the rest of the school year, and it almost worked. 

Unfortunately, sometime around the end of February or the middle of March, I was in so much pain that one of my teachers allowed me to lie down on the floor during class. Even with this consideration, pain meds, muscle relaxers, etc. it was a struggle just to get through the day. It was around this time that we decided it was in my best interest not to wait any longer to have the surgery and so two months after I turned nineteen, two days after my senior prom, I had my first back surgery: a laminectomy. It was April of 1998 for anyone that was wondering.

I don't remember much about that first surgery or even the hospital stay after the surgery. The nurses kept commenting on how young I was and how unusual it was for someone so young to be having back surgery. Um, thanks? I didn't realize I was considered young for back surgery. 😑  I know, I know, they were just being nice. I get it and I was nice right back but still...

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to eat right after back surgery without spilling it all over yourself? Let me tell you it's NOT easy. I ended up with, I don't know, maybe half of my meal down the front of my hospital gown each time. I feel like I should explain this a little more. I'm SHORT and after surgery, it was extremely painful to lift the head of the bed more than a tiny bit. Which meant...did you guess? Yup! The tray was above my head. Even at it's lowest position, I could just barely see my food. It got messy! 

I couldn't finish my senior year because of the surgery so my high school sent me a tutor. I was able to earn enough credits to graduate, but my time at the vocational school was wasted because I couldn't finish my lab hours which meant no certificate. I guess it was okay though, considering I had already realized that working full-time with toddlers wasn't going to be feasible. I knew myself enough to know that if a small child came to me crying, I'd pick the child up, regardless of whether or not it was bad for my back. I only vaguely remember my graduation ceremony. I was on pain medications (prescribed, obviously) and was still in intense pain. I remember my niece making a lot of noise, she was adorable, but not much more, unfortunately. 

So, there you have it. I spent my entire high school career dealing with chronic pain. Oh, wait! I left out the day to day parts where I rarely got to go hang out with my friends because of the pain and the days where I hurt so much all I wanted to do was cry but I had to force myself to get up and go to school. I left out the years of depression I suffered, partly due to a family history of depression but a large part was due to my chronic pain. I learned to get angry at my pain. It was better to be frustrated than it was to cry and it still is better...in my opinion.

I bet you're wondering if the surgery helped. It did, for a while: if you ignore the fact that I haven't had reflexes in my right knee since the surgery, I think I was mostly pain-free for about a year. But that story is better left until time.

Take care, and remember: Just because a person doesn't LOOK like they are in pain, doesn't mean they aren't.

~Shawnakat



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