Friday, July 17, 2009

A Tale Of Spinal Torment - Part 1 of 3

The day I decided to have back surgery, I was in Seattle on a business trip. Just as I stepped into my hotel room’s shower, I sneezed, sending a bolt of pain down my leg that literally knocked me down. There I lay, hoping desperately the seizure would stop so I wouldn’t have to scream for help. I didn’t want the bellman to come into my room and find me writhing naked on the tile floor.

That episode was the culmination of years of back problems, debilitating muscle spasms from my neck to my butt, days when one of my arms was paralyzed, nights when I couldn’t turn over in bed and mornings when I couldn’t get out of it. When I collapsed to the bathroom floor in Seattle ten years ago, I had undergone months of treatment for a garden variety herniated disc—muscle relaxants, pain medication, physical therapy, bed rest, ice, heat, you name it, I’d tried it. The pain, primarily sciatica (a severe stabbing pain that shot from my lower back down my leg to my foot), came and went—but mostly it came—until the day it decided to stay.

Every case is different, of course, but according to the Annals of Internal Medicine, low back pain like mine is the second most frequent reason for physician visits, vying with sniffles and other symptoms of colds and flu for the top spot. Rumor (and educated opinion) has it that so many of us suffer from back problems because our bodies evolved to run on all fours across the savannah rather than walk around upright lugging golf clubs or shopping bags. There was also no notch on the evolutionary ladder that rewards sitting behind a desk pecking at a keyboard all day.

My herniated disc was L5-S1, a common problem area between the lowest lumbar vertebrate and the sacrum, or tailbone. The doctors I saw explained that a disc acts as a shock absorber sitting between the bones in your back. It looks kind of like a jelly donut. If you damage your back, either through a cumulative, repetitive injury over time or in an acute, one-time incident, some of the jelly stuff in the middle squirts out. When it pinches a nerve, you fall down naked on the floor.

Not wanting that to happen any more, I underwent a discectomy, where the surgeon cuts away a little bit of bone and ligament in the affected area, moves the nerve—gently, please—out of the way, then scrapes away the offending hernia so it no longer bothers the nerve. Instant relief.

Except…there was some numbness in my right foot and a little tingling in that leg from time to time. It wasn’t much though, and the surgeon said it would probably go away with time. I gratefully learned to live with it—it wasn’t pain.

Fast-forward ten years. I started having severe cramps in my legs and greater numbness in my foot. The spasms bothered me first at night, then during the day if I sat for long periods, finally even while I was walking around. I went to my family physician, Dr. Robert Fusco, who eliminated as many possible causes as he could and sent me to a back specialist.

Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Krishn Sharma of NY-Conn Orthopedic in West Harrison explains what had happened in the ten years since my back operation: “Anytime you do surgery, scar tissue forms. If we take away some ligament and bone in your back, your body will fill in with a fibrous, scar-like material. That can trap the nerve root and cause you to have some new symptoms, especially if you re-aggravate it.” My pain moved from my back, which doesn’t hurt at all most of the time, to my legs.

Part 1 of 3 (originally published in a slightly different version in Westchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

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