I can’t let the month of May, 2013 go by without marking the two-year anniversary of one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made.
~ ~ ~
Before I go on: I have no medical training. This is a story. My story. It is not a recommendation – and I may be the most foolish person to ever live for having done what I did.
Read if you like – but see your own doctor, and make your own decisions.
~ ~ ~
In May, 2011, heavily overweight and in fairly constant pain, unable to walk properly even with a walker, I received the news that an MRI showed further spinal disc degeneration ABOVE and BELOW the L4-L5 spinal fusion I had received over four years previously.
To tell the truth, I never properly recovered from that surgery, and now they were telling me I needed more – and that the problem would probably progress, and I would need further surgery later. They told me to schedule the surgery, that it would only get worse.
I walked away from that orthopedic surgeon’s office – and never went back.
That’s not the scary part.
The scary part is that somehow I made a decision to seek my own solutions – and somehow I won.
These photos are my proof.
Yup, that’s me in both of them. Unfortunately, they were taken by other people with camera phones, and you can’t see my face, and there is background clutter, and… and… But I am doing a half-handstand in one (no one took a picture of the full handstand), and a headstand in the other.
My voice teacher had been telling me: “You should try yoga.” To which I had been replying, “I only believe in Western medicine.” I called her up – and asked for the name of her teacher.
I waited for a month until he had time, and I ended up having only one session with him, a session that lasted an hour and a half.
He told me, after getting me into a bunch of different positions, and shaking his head, that he didn’t see why I should be in pain. This while the lower back pain is flaring and the sciatica is in full bloom. He seemed puzzled.
He told me that half the people walking around with the same MRI results I was telling him about had NO pain. He told me about a book written in the 1950s by John Sarno, M. D. called Mind Over Back Pain. And he showed me a particular easy yoga exercise for one of the parts of the pain, and told me to do it 18 times a day, tightening the muscles from the lowest position that was pain-free and gradually working my way to the proper position. It was an isometric for the top of the hamstrings – the part you sit on – for a whole 3 seconds at a time. 18 times.
We talked about setting another date. I thought he said he’d let me know when he had more time, I believe he thought I was going to get back to him. Miscommunication.
But while I was waiting for that phone call, I ordered four books on yoga from Amazon, and Dr. Sarno’s little book. And I swallowed them. Whole.
Dr. Sarno’s contention was that back pain – which most people fear will lead to something horrible happening (that’s what it feels like), such as the severing of their spine and becoming paralyzed – was merely tense muscles tightened around the embedded nerves. He said that you could learn to relax the muscles – and the pain would go away.
At this point I still could have returned to the surgeon, but the memory of the previous time was too acute.
I figured I had little to lose doing the easy hamstring clenches, and thinking about what Dr. Sarno said, that ‘half the people walking around with degenerative disc disease had NO pain.’ I wanted to be in that half, the one with no pain. Dr. Sarno said ALL back pain was muscle pain – that seemed a bit much to believe. All? But it wasn’t hard to believe that SOME back pain was as he described – and I tried to believe (belief seemed to be important in trusting enough to try) that it wouldn’t hurt to try.
After all, what did I have to lose?
My brain said, “You will be paralyzed.” My brain said, “You are already losing your window for the surgery – the longer you postpone, the less your chance of recovery.”
I told my brain, “The instant things feel worse I will stop, and go back to the surgeon.” I warned myself to watch for numbness and bladder problems (classic signs that nerves are being damaged by the pressure – there is indeed a narrow window, only a couple of months at best, before the damage and numbness are permanent). I knew that if I developed those symptoms I should get myself back to the orthopedist’s office IMMEDIATELY.
And then I found a nearby yoga studio, signed up, and started taking a weekly lesson from a wonderful, gentle teacher, Morgan Mahoney*, who told us NEVER to go into a painful place, to stop if we got tired, and to not do anything that was too difficult – or even felt weird. “Trust your body,” Morgan said.
The rest is long, but relatively easy. I did the yoga every week, and some at home. I listened to my body and thought about those tense lower back muscles. I was gentle. I stretched. For almost a year I went to class, getting continually better. Every day I wake up a little stiff – and I work it out. I know how now.
Then I decided to tackle the excess weight. I got rid of 65 lbs. over the next twelve months.
I continued the yoga, getting better and better (at the easy stuff – I’m way over 50 and reasonably sensible).
After a year and a half, and all the weight loss, I located, by accident, a medical specialty: physiatry. Physiatrists are specialists in muscles and bones and getting them to work properly. They deal with athletes, dancers, and musculoskeletal problems from children with disabilities to adults with trauma. They eschew surgery, if at all possible. They want to restore normal function.
I’m still working on that walking part – the right foot doesn’t push off properly yet, but steroid injections into the place where that nerve goes through the bone seem to be helping, and, with the help of the physical therapist and exercises the physiatrist prescribed, I have isolated the muscles I need to strengthen to regain complete control. The doctor thinks it’s only a matter of time, but it’s been compromised for a while, and it will take a while to rebuild. I bought a special gym (on Amazon) and do the exact exercise in my basement every day (instead of having to drive to PT once a week). I’m pretty sure I’ll get a lot of it back, so I can go for a hike.
In summary: my attitude has changed – from fear to ‘I can’t believe I did it!’ I am still trying to get the last few pounds off (who isn’t?). And I’ve pretty much blasted away the orthopedist’s prediction that I needed more surgery immediately – as the only way to get rid of the pain – and that I’d never be able to lift more than 25 lbs. again. (See photos – I’ve half a mind to send them to him.)
That’s why this post is important to me: I wanted to be sure. I wanted enough time to go by to be certain I’m pain-free. And I want to celebrate. Two years should do it, don’t you think?
*Contact me if you are close enough to Hamilton NJ, and want to go to Morgan’s classes. I try not to miss a week!