Punching back against chronic pain
It began as a headache, something I thought was the result from working at the front desk of the Senior Center and dealing with an automatic sliding door opening and closing all afternoon. Every time it opened, I was hit in the eyes by the bright sunlight outside.
The headache never left and within a few short days it worsened and was joined with searing pain in my mid spine and a neck that grew increasingly stiff. Within a week, there was numbness in my right hand that became increasingly uncomfortably, especially at night, and came with more nerve pain, this time from the elbow.
Then the same began happening to my left hand and elbow. No singular pain was so bad it made me want to do much more than wait it out, but cumulatively, it meant I needed to see a doctor, one who specialized in pain.
This was not my first rodeo with this pain, the result of a major accident I probably should not have survived ten years earlier. However, I thought I had it knocked out thanks to a pain specialist in Riverside County. Now, living in Ventura County, I was again researching doctors who specialize in pain management. I found an excellent doctor who not only instilled confidence in me when I first met him, but who along with his entire staff was the nicest bunch of people running a medical business I had ever encountered.
I figured after he read my chart and heard my history he would resume the same series of injections I previously went through. He asked me a lot of questions and listened carefully to my answers as I expressed how much my head and spine hurt. I tell him my head feels like it is the size of a water melon balancing on a pencil. I hadn’t even mentioned my arms because their discomfort was minor to the throbbing and burning I was feeling elsewhere.
Then he asked me if there were any other issues to which I explained to him the numbness in my hands and pain in my elbows. More questions were then followed by some tests and a quick exam of the palms of my hands.
Right away, he informed me I was lacking any fatty pads on my palms. He explained why this was a serious matter. Apparently they help protect the ulnar nerve as it runs down to the hand. He went on to tell me he saw visible signs of atrophy and a lack of hand and finger strength, particularly in my right hand.
It was then he could have floored me with the news he delivered. “You appear to be losing the use of both hands and I am afraid there might be permanent nerve damage to both of your Ulnar nerves.We need to get to the bottom of this as soon as possible.”
While a member of his staff went to make arrangements for me to see another specialist for a not so pleasant nerve conduction test, another wrote up a referral for an MRI of my neck. “We need to find the source of this problem.”
If it is from my elbows pinching off the Ulnar nerve, my doctor informed me I was looking at elbow surgery to relocate the nerve in each arm with the hope it will heal and regenerate. If it was from the neck, we’d have to see if surgery or drugs would be the best plan. He tells me the goal is to avoid neck surgery. With each explanation, he assured me he was not a surgeon and that he was not looking to cut on me. “I simply want to find the source so we can get you pointed in the right direction.”
Next, he told me I cannot afford to wait and come back to him for injections that are normally done under a mild anesthesia. He asked me if I was up for a few, including in the back of my skull. Two occipital injections along with another ten along my shoulder complex and upper spine were enough to make me rethink having agreed to fore go anesthesia.
After, he sat with me and we talked about pain in general and a few more specifics about possible surgery to move the nerves. This was a very caring man who deals with people suffering from the pain from cancer treatment, automobile accidents, diabetes, and a host of other serious matters and yet here he was comforting me, a very fit man, because he probably saw on my face the same look he sees on others who come to him.
Three days later, I was being rolled into the chamber of an MRI machine, something I was all too familiar with. The ear plugs did nothing to drown out the sound of what seemed like a Techno Concert being played at maximum volume inside my head. I closed my eyes like always and drifted off for a short afternoon nap. Don’t ask me how, but not even an MRI can keep me from the chance to catch up on the sleep I have lost from nights of nerve pain in my arms.
When life punches you in the gut, you can double over and surrender or you can punch back. I prefer counter punching. I may end up losing a fight or two, but at least I figure I can live with myself over the results.
I think of my mother, who at the young age of 42 with eight children was diagnosed with cancer. She took the punch and then moved forward with her life. Living with a colostomy bag, she never once let it get in the way of traveling the world, dressing for a night on the town, or just hanging out with the family poolside. She made a point of serving others who she saw as much less fortunate than her and ended up being an inspiration to many.
Sure, I could be like others and follow the path of the pill, in this case narcotics, but seeing my father self-medicate way too much, I tell myself to make the best of life’s disappointments. They come in many forms and at the worst of times. There was seeing my senior year of high school soccer destroyed ten minutes into our first scrimmage. Getting dumped a time or two. Breaking the wrist of my writing hand two days before college mid-term essays. Those were all minor.
There was being told our first born had a 50 percent chance of living two weeks. The realization I would have been happier in a different career. Moving to Hemet. The slow and eventual death of my first marriage. And now this, coming just five months after successfully rehabbing lower back surgery and thinking I was blessed to feel so good physically, mentally, and emotionally at this stage in life.
What is it about some that make it easier to cope with life’s major disappointments than others? I once saw a doctor about my depression and received a chastising lecture about why I had no reason to feel depressed. He knew me all of about ten seconds which in his mind was enough to determine there was nothing wrong with me. I had no problem letting him know what I thought of his diagnosis and gave him my diagnosis of him in return. It was a blessing because the next doctor I saw worked with me and helped me defeat a lifelong monster that kept rearing its head.
This week, it’s another medical test. While it is frustrating not knowing what is wrong or just how severe it may or may not be, I draw strength knowing that I am among the fortunate to have the coping skills to handle whatever the outcome is and am not afraid to punch back harder than I am punched.
Jim is a life long resident of California and retired school teacher with 30 years in public education. Jim earned his BA in History from CSU Chico in 1981 and his MA in Education from Azusa Pacific University in 1994. He is also the author of Teaching The Teacher: Lessons Learned From Teaching. Jim considers himself an equal opportunity pain in the ass to any political party, group, or individual who looks to profit off of hypocrisy. When he is not pointing out the conflicting words and actions of our leaders, the NFL commissioner, or humans in general, he can be found riding his bike for hours on end while pondering his next article. Jim recently moved to Camarillo, CA after being convinced to join the witness protection program.