Throughout my life, I have been generally active and healthy. Like many people over the age of forty, I started having some cervical and general disc pain in my back after years of working as a teacher and editor. I tried the usual anti-inflammatory medications, which never helped enough, and, after about five years, started to irritate my intestines and stomach. After visiting a neurologist, and finding no relief with the pain medications, he suggested I try an epidural injection procedure which should bring me lasting relief rather than to continue taking pills. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The day came for the procedure and I was ready to finally be rid of the daily pain I’d had for years. I signed the waiver and was wheeled off into the treatment room. The doctor introduced me to the assisting resident. I did not object as it is a teaching hospital, it was a resident and not a student assisting, and I assumed she would observe and not actually perform any part of the procedure. As it turned out, she performed the procedure following the doctor’s instructions; he told me that his hand was always on hers, guiding her.
Once the catheter reached the cervical space and the medication was injected, I felt a sharp pain like I’d been poked with a fork and I gasped as if shocked by electricity. I was reassured that “It’s just the medication going in.” Towards the end of the procedure, I felt like a whip as they pulled out the catheter, which sent my right leg flying up off of the table and I again screamed. I said, “What’s going on?” to which the doctor replied, “it’s ok, we’re done”.
Well, I wish I could say that the pain was done! What followed when I returned home was a combination of pain, numbness, and migraine headaches, which increased over the next week until I ended up in the emergency room with unbearable pain all over.
I was admitted to the hospital for tests and a scan which did not show any cause for the extreme pain. The doctors had no explanation except that the medication inserted into my spinal column had irritated the nerves. Over the next few months, I experienced severe, burning nerve pain in my back, migraine headaches, and numbness on the right side of my body.
I have since learned that these particular medications used in epidurals have a lot of side effects, some which can’t be reversed, such as nerve damage and worse. For the next six months, I went from doctor to doctor, trying to get answers and help with my pain. All I got was medicine and blank stares. It seemed no one understood the cause of the pain. I was living on nerve medication, which only slightly helped and had many side effects. I was actually worse off than before going in for the “pain management” epidural injection.
It was really out of frustration over the constant pain that I started seeking out “complementary” therapies. Each person responds differently to the various chronic pain therapies. I found the most and longest lasting relief with an osteopathic doctor, who, in addition to his treatments has also put me on magnesium, vitamins D and B12, and selenium supplements. This combination has done wonders for my nerve pain. A routine of specific swimming exercises was also prescribed. I have good days and bad, but overall, the pain is much less than before.
Dr. Andrew Still, an American physician and surgeon, founded the practice of osteopathy in 1874. The philosophy of osteopathy is about finding the cause of the discomfort and treating not just the area that is painful, but the root causes, somewhat forcing the body to do its job of self-healing, as it is made to do. Unlike a standard MD or physical therapist, an osteopath treats the whole body fascia, rather than just the area of pain. The fascia is the soft connective tissue matrix, which surrounds our organs, muscles and nerves fibers, ligaments, tendons, and bones. After an osteopathic manual treatment, the body is in repair mode, so there is some soreness, which is a sign that the healing signals in the brain are activated. This is something that most patients do not expect, as we see pain as only negative.
In osteopathy, medicine is avoided, or reduced as much as possible, and supplements and specific exercises are encouraged. I began to be convinced, both through research and experiencing the treatment sessions, that the nerve pain medications I had been relying on were really only blocking the pain signal from the brain and not a long-term solution.
Once I decided to take my health into my own hands and stopped relying solely on medication, I began to have more hope. I learned that the first go-to sources for pain (invasive procedures and medication) are not always the best. I have found so many knowledgeable, proficient and caring health practitioners, from MDs to chiropractors, osteopaths and physical therapists, all working to help their patients from their expertise and hearts. It’s really up to us to seek them out.
Having researched and tried many complementary pain management treatments available in Lebanon, which included: shiatsu, chiropractic, traditional Chinese as well as medical acupuncture, trigger point therapy, oxygen therapy, and osteopathy to name a few, I have found some amazing therapists and doctors whom I may have never found if I had not made the effort to do so on my own.
Looking back on this whole experience, which I still face every day, I realize now that I made the mistake of rushing into an invasive procedure, which for me turned out to be more harmful than good. Though I honestly wish I could go back in time to the day of the event and avoid it, or find blame somewhere, I know this is not possible. What I can do is continue to take care of my body, manage my pain safely by continuing to seek out complementary therapies, and to avoid things that trigger my pain. I have learned much about what is available for people in pain and the ways in which we as patients can take our health into our own hands when medication is not enough.