I’ve been living with chronic pain for most of my adult life. I only recently started calling it chronic pain because I kind of just all of a sudden realized I’ve been in pain since college.
It’s mostly in my neck, and then spreads to my upper back and shoulder blades. LMonny is the first person to make me realize I’m constantly in pain. It’s 2012 and I’m home in New Jersey. I probably mention something about having anxiety when LMonny points out this thing I always do. She mimics me, bending at her neck, turning her head back and forward, side to side. I’m immediately embarrassed and feel like I’m looking in a mirror. I DO do that all the time. I must look like an idiot.
Since then, I have decided that the pain is all in my head. There is probably nothing wrong me. I just have anxiety.
But lately it’s gotten worse. In late October, I wake up one morning and notice a real change. I feel like I maybe slept on my neck wrong. The pain is more acute and isolated on the right side. Still, I consider this my life. And continue on with this pain until February. Now, the pain is spreading to my back and shoulders. I heat it – which relaxes me temporarily.
I lay in bed at night, and there’s a dull ache that tingles all along my upper back, in between my shoulder blades. If I bend forward, it aches. If I bend backward, it aches. If I lie still, it’s the worst. It is finally at this point, that I decide to go to a doctor.
I tell the doctor about my pain and how I read Dr. John Sarno’s book, Healing Back Pain. …you know Dr. Sarno? “No, I’ve never heard of him.” Oh, well, basically, the pain is in my head. So I’m sure there’s nothing actually, physically wrong with me.
Why doesn’t she know who Dr. Sarno is? C’mon.
She takes an X-ray. I tell Stephen, I really hope they find something wrong with me. He tells me, “I really hope they don’t find something wrong with you.”
He doesn’t get it. If they don’t find anything, then I’m right. It’s all in my head and there’s nothing I can do about it. And I’m a head case. Stephen seems to hope that if they don’t find anything, they’ll still be able to help me figure out how to handle the pain. Doubtful.
The results are in. The doctor first informs me that there’s nothing too alarming, but she’s surprised – for my age – to find some arthritis in my neck. She basically says there’s not much I can do about it. She writes me a prescription for a mild muscle relaxer to take before bed, and refers me to a local physical therapy office.
When I arrive home, I tell Stephen my doomed news. I have arthritis and there’s nothing I can do about it. He hugs me. Then I say something completely unrelated – I can’t remember what – and he gets frustrated by me. I stare at him. “I’m 34 and I have arthritis.” He rolls his eyes. I’m going to milk this arthritis thing for as long as I can, which apparently, isn’t for very long.
The following week, I go to the physical therapist. I have never been to physical therapy. In college, so many players had to do physical therapy for various injuries. There was always something so cool about it. The trainers were cool, the whirlpool was cool, it was like a club I could never be apart of, because I never had an injury.
Now, I’ve made it. I’m in the club. Reception takes me into a large room that looks like a gym, with bikes and free weights and gadgets. People who work here walk around the room with rolling desks that have ipads on them. I am approached by a guy around my age who will be my physical therapist. His name is Ryan and he reminds me of Mafee, from the HBO show, Billions. He takes me into a smaller office and we get right to it.
I tell him about my pain, how long I’ve had it, and how I’m sure it’s not real – again referring to Dr. Sarno. After the second time I refer to my pain as not real, Ryan asks me to stop saying it. “If you’re having pain, then it’s real.”
If Ryan is anything, he’s informative. I wasn’t expecting this to feel like a class, but it does, in the very best way. And he is familiar with Dr. Sarno’s work, thank you very much. In the most basic of terms, he explains that our bodies learn to protect themselves from pain. In order to do that, we produce pain to prevent further pain. So it doesn’t really matter what’s going on in our tissues. It’s not about our tissues, it’s about our nervous system.
He also tells me that nearly everyone has arthritic changes in their spine as they get older. So the fact that my X-ray turned up with arthritis in my neck means very little (I guess it’s time to stop complaining).
Now he starts drawing on a white board. He shows me my nervous system at the bottom of the graph. At the top of the graph, is where my body feels pain. In between, is this huge gap called the buffer area, where you’re safe. Where there is still not enough pain to hurt you. What has happened with me – and many other people – is that my body has gotten so accustomed to protecting me from pain, that it thinks pain is happening way more than it is, so that buffer area has gotten smaller and smaller over time.
What we hope to achieve in physical therapy, is to very slowly start to “poke the bear.” (He says this so often that it’s stuck in my head.) In order to poke the bear, we will do exercises that will push us right up to that line, so it’s getting our nervous system to not feel like it needs to go into protect mode – so it can say, OK, that’s fine, you’re fine, we’re OK.
He then tells me the supposed bad news. “This is not a quick fix. It takes a long time.”
I relax. A year is not long. I’ve been in pain for like 12 years. If my pain could be gone over the course of the next year? That would be a miracle.
Now Ryan wants to check out what’s going on with me. I sit on a table, and he stands behind me. Tilts my head to one side, presses down, asks me how it feels. Then the other side. Nothing hurts, but just feels really tight and I feel like I don’t want to be turning my head that much. Then he presses down on the top of my head. “How does that feel?” I shrug. Fine. Then he puts his hands around the base of my skull and pulls up.
Heat floods my body and I feel weak. My arms tingle and it shoots all the way through my fingertips. I try to breathe out a long, slow breath, but I can feel the panic coming. “Oh God,” I say. “I’m really hot.”
Ryan comes around to face me and I completely lose it. I’m sobbing but reassure him that I’m fine.
It didn’t even hurt, I just got scared. “Has this happened to you before?” Yes. Once. I’m still crying as I try to explain and catch my breath. I was in a lot of pain so I want to a massage therapist about three years ago and he was massaging my neck when I got really hot and passed out. It just reminded me of that so I got scared.
Jesus. I really am a head case.
Ryan is unfazed. He has me lay down on my back. He places his fingers under the base of my skull and I just lay there, allowing gravity to press my head down into his hands. I feel better.
He proceeds to educate me about pain in the body and I eagerly try to understand everything that he’s saying. He sends me home with homework, which I LOVE. Watch these videos, do these exercises, and come in twice a week.
I go home and watch the videos. These people are being interviewed before and after their horrible back pain. The video quality is crap, and the sound isn’t that great, but I am glued to these videos. And all of a sudden, for the second time today, I’m crying.
I cry because I feel hope. I didn’t think it was possible to live without pain, but maybe, just maybe, there is light at the end of this tunnel.