One Sufferer's Search For Sweet Relief

October 21, 1990|By A. M. Chaplin

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH back pain was 20 years ago last summer. I was tie-dyeing T-shirts at the time; it was my hippie phase. I started to straighten up from the table I was bending over -- and couldn't. That was the beginning.

I was sent to an orthopedist at a major medical center, a surgeon whom other doctors referred to as a "top man in his field." Dr. Top Man eyed me resentfully as I walked in the door, and the interaction went downhill from there. If brusque weren't a fancier word, I'd say the man was pretty damn rude.

He did condescend to give me a five-minute examination, and then I was limping back out the door again. I didn't have a diagnosis or a recommendation for treatment -- though the receptionist did give me a pamphlet on back pain with cartoons in it.

That was my worst experience with a doctor I've gone to see about my back. I have had three or four others since then, and they have taught me two things: (1) Most doctors don't like bad backs. And (2) most doctors don't like bad backs because they don't know what to do with them.

There is a corollary here, a (3). It is that there may not be anything definitive that can be done for bad backs. But I don' like to think about that. Let's change the subject.

After my run-in with Dr. Top Man, I had a long and blessed period of pretty much pain-free life. I like to believe this was because I was taking ballet, yoga and exercise classes at the time, but it is only fair to warn you that I am one of those people who need to believe in causes for things. I do not care for the idea of a random universe, and no more do I care for the idea of random back pain.

It is my duty as a reporter, however, to point out that back pain can be random. In other words, some people do all the right things -- keep their weight down, exercise and stretch faithfully, say their prayers every night -- and they still get back pain, while others -- despicable, potbellied couch potatoes who lift heavy objects in completely the wrong way -- go through life with nary a twinge. I can't explain this. I can only report it, resentfully.

So anyway, the way I interpret it, while I was being good, my back rewarded me by also being good -- not hurting me. Then I started slacking off on the exercise classes and substituting in their place swimming and walking. For a year or so everything was cool. Then they began. "They" are flare-ups, episodes of back pain of gradually increasing duration.

Flare-ups! How I hate that word. It is a concept of middle age, like "reading glasses" and "elastic waist." I am no fonder than the next person of thinking of myself as middle-aged, so what I did with my flare-ups was deny them as long as possible -- until I had one so bad I couldn't even get dressed without help.

At that point I had to confront two very unpleasant facts. No. 1 was that having to ask your spouse to help you put on your pantyhose is sexy only in theory. No. 2 was that if this hobbling, hunching, depressed and pain-obsessed existence was all that was left to me, I didn't want it.

Back to the doctors.

The first doctor, an internist and a pragmatist, told me that most people had back pain and that there wasn't much to be done about it. She suggested a sacroiliac belt, which didn't work. The second doctor, an orthopedist, took a rash of X-rays and told me one of the spiny gizmos that project from the vertebrae was broken. An old fracture, he said, nothing dangerous, but it had destabilized the spine, thus causing pain.

A destabilized spine! It sounded like a Balkan state, and you know what they're like. I asked him if physical therapy would help. He looked doubtful, but when I begged, he referred. Was I imagining it, or was he shaking his head as I left?

OK, I was naive. I imagined a cure; what I got was a short-term fix. This was in the shape of traction, massage and heating pads, which are all very nice and I wouldn't mind having them every night, but they don't really cure anything, do they? Ease the pain, yes. But cure anything? Nope.

Fortunately, on the last couple of days the therapist also gave me three exercises, and one of them, a hamstring stretch, really did help. Less than a week of doing it faithfully, and pantyhose was a one-person operation again.

This simple stretch filled me with hope. Maybe it shouldn't have, but it did. If one little exercise could do so much, what could a thorough program of them accomplish? Visions of a back redeemed through sweat and stretch danced through my head. So very carefully I tried, in succession, Nautilus, more swimming, yoga, an Alexander technique lesson. (See story on treatment options.) My back got, in succession, worse, better, worse, better.

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