Back pain taught me 5 important lessons

[This piece was first published in the Greenville Daily News on March 3, 2021.]

It’s been four weeks since I took myself — by ambulance — to the emergency room of my local hospital with the most excruciating pain I have felt in my life.

Now, I’m no lightweight when it comes to pain. I’ve birthed a child; and learned a couple of years after the fact that what I thought was a sprained wrist was actually a broken one, which I had reset myself with an ACE bandage.

This pain, however, was the kind that dropped me to my knees in tears. It made me cling to the wall, lean in and move hand over hand, to do pet duties; and sometimes scream out loud when an unintended twist or turn — or no movement at all — was too much.

After an MRI, the ER doc told me I had two herniated disks in my lumbar spine. I recalled no injuries, and chalked it up to age, a desk job and inactivity during COVID. I was prescribed rest with some activity (but not too much), a muscle relaxer and ibuprofen, none of which erased the pain completely. Sleep, however brief,  was the only thing that brought relief.

Blausen.com staff (2014). “Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014“. WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010ISSN 2002-4436

So I laid there, in bed, moving as little as possible, for a week. I couldn’t focus enough to read or write. Reaching for the phone brought the possibility of agony, which made me reconsider whether it was worth it just to check social media or the news. 

It was awful, and miraculous, because for the first time in decades, I had to stop. Everything. I had to pay attention to what my body was telling me, what it wanted and needed. In that process, I was reminded of a way of being that I had forgotten about, one that didn’t depend on to-do’s — only to-be’s.

Here are five things I did that woke me up and, for now and hopefully for longer than that, changed my life. 

2 herniated disks, 5 lessons 

1. Slow down. During that first week, every movement I made had to be slow and deliberate, or I risked a painful reminder: Stop rushing. Apparently I do everything in a hurry, multi-tasking whenever I can, and the result is that I don’t do any of it well and I certainly don’t enjoy it (in fact I often resent it), so focused on the mantra “Git ’er done.”  

2. Notice. Because I had to be mindful about everything I did, I saw how much I was doing automatically and out of habit. The pain brought me back time and time again to the present moment, and reminded me not to get too far ahead of myself. Walking to the kitchen or bathroom brought an opportunity for mindful, even meditative, movement. I noticed when I was hungry or thirsty (mostly I wasn’t), when the medication was wearing off, and when I needed a nap, because if I listened, my body told me what it wanted.

3. Detox. I struggle with mindless eating. I have wonderful friends who brought me homemade soups and easy, healthy snacks, and before the week was up I lost my craving for tortilla chips, cookies and even alcohol. All of that was in my pantry, but I had to want it and then get it. I didn’t. (I still don’t, by the way.) The same was true for mindless consumption of incoming information. It would have been easy to stay on Facebook or Twitter all day, or repeatedly check news headlines and travel down whatever rabbit hole they pulled me into. I didn’t, and the more I didn’t, the more peaceful and clear-headed I felt. Coincidence? I think not. 

4. Find a new rhythm. One of the discoveries that most delighted me was letting the day order itself. I turned off the alarm that usually signals the beginning of the day and woke up when I was rested enough. At the end of the day, reaching over to turn on and off my bedside lamp caused extra movement, and extra pain. My bed time became more or less when the sun went down. Sometimes I watched a YouTube video on cooking or bullet journaling, occasionally a movie, but darkness became the signal to wind down.

5. Remember self-care. I’ll admit: I visited “Dr. Google” on occasion during the week to learn more about herniated disks and what would help with recovery. I learned that back issues like this can come with age, along with the couple of other age-related issues that popped up on my MRI. All of this — and more — can be managed with a healthy lifestyle, including food, exercise, adequate sleep and water intake. I knew this. And yet, until this wake-up call, I didn’t care what I was putting in my body. I wasn’t listening to it … until it grabbed my attention.                                                               

I’m still healing, better but not 100 percent. (Dr. Google says it could be six to eight weeks.) That means I am reminded of these lessons every day, and that’s good, because many times during the day, I forget, until … there’s that pain again. 

As the cellphone spokesperson used to say, my body asks me “Can you hear me now?”  

3 Replies to “Back pain taught me 5 important lessons”

  1. Thank you for this educational information. Good advice even without a crushing health crisis. Hoping the pain only lasts one day more than you require to truly embrace the new priorities as your own!

    Like

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