Chronic Back Pain

by Jim Walters, 55, of Long Beach, managing editor, Orange Coast

It was Christmas Eve, intense back pain had landed me in the hospital, and I’d never felt lower in my life.

An elderly man in the far bed spent the evening arguing with a visitor, each trying to be heard over a TV blaring Telemundo since that morning. Next to me was a post-op patient whose wife, kids, and camera-packing in-laws had brought their holiday gift exchange—and a bawling baby—to him. My painkillers just couldn’t compete. All I wanted was to pass out. Could this evening get any worse? “Gentlemen,” a nurse chirped as she escorted half a dozen second-graders into the room. “We have carolers!”

Sciatica feels like someone has shoved one knitting needle halfway into the small of your back, the other into your big toe, and attached both to a set of jumper cables connected to an 18-wheeler’s battery.

Nearly a decade has passed since that bleak holiday season, my second go-round with a bad disk. The first episode, back in the mid-’80s, had begun with what felt like a twisted ankle that just wouldn’t get better. I jogged. I built a fence. I packed and moved. And the pain grew more intense, more constant … and began creeping up my leg. Finally, even my butt hurt.

I called my doctor. That next morning’s office visit and that afternoon’s MRI confirmed the worst: My ruptured bottom disk was compressing the base of the long sciatic nerve that runs down my left leg. Bed rest and painkillers didn’t do the trick. Chiropractors brought minimal relief. Acupuncture did nothing. In the end, a laminectomy—surgery that left me with half a disk—gave me back my life. That is, until a December day in 2000 when I emptied a trash can into a dumpster.

Zing! In an instant, all the pain—and those memories—came back. And in the weeks that followed, I relived them all: The walker and the cane. Life in a bathrobe. The pain waking me every time I rolled over. Meals all eaten prostrate, using a towel for a bib with the plate hot from the microwave atop my chest. Drying off with a hair dryer instead of a towel. Relief this time came with six months of bed rest and a Hail Mary epidural shot delivered with a good dose of laughter.

Three times before I’d sat on the edge of a table, facing a wall and being quizzed on state capitals to keep my mind off the needle being shoved into my spine. And three times the injections had numbed the pain for only a few days. Finally the pain-management specialist decided to try one last time with a different approach. Lying face-down, butt-naked under an X-ray machine with its technician at the ready, a nurse shot dye into my back as I debated with myself out loud if Pierre was in North Dakota or South. Once the dye showed the team where the nerve root was, we could nail it with cortisone while the needle was still in my back.

“The dye’s in,” the nurse announced. “Mission accomplished.”

“Wait!” said the doctor. “Don’t move! … Put the needle back.”

Suddenly, Gene Wilder and Teri Garr trapped in “Young Frankenstein’s” spinning bookcase came to mind.

“Put … zee … needle … back!” I said, improvising on a line of dialogue. The doctor, nurse, and X-ray tech exploded in laughter. Then silence.

“Vood zee doctor care for a bwandy before retiring?” came from a corner of the room. Laughter. Silence.

“You take the blonde, I’ll take the one in the turban!” said someone else. It was followed by another line from the movie, and another. Amid the laughter I struggled to lie still, gripping the edge of the table while the X-ray was made and the drug was finally injected. Bingo! Everything contracted from top to bottom: I felt like the pain was being squeezed out of my toes by a boa constrictor wound around my leg. Yes, the doctor reassured me, it meant we’d hit the nerve.

And within a few weeks, I was up and about.

In all, pain has kept me in bed for a year of my life—plenty of time to think. I now can understand why some people become alcoholics, others get hooked on pills, and a few give up altogether. But none of those options, I decided, yields good long-term results.

Pain will be with me, at one level or another, every day for the rest of my life. Rather than grumble about it, I exercise, strengthening my body to support my back.

I’m in this life for the long haul. And any day I can walk is a good one.

Photograph by Jason Wallis

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.

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