Friday, July 24, 2009

A Tale Of Spinal Torment - Part 2 of 3

Ten years ago, my diagnosis was based on an X-ray. Now, I also had an MRI and an EMG, or electromyogram, where they shot electrical current through needles into my legs at various places and recorded what happened in the nerve roots. It wasn’t fun, but it could have been worse.

Dr. Sharma told me I had three treatment options: non-operative (medication and physical therapy), interventional (a steroid injection in the spine), or surgery. When I immediately opted for door number three, he suggested I rethink my choice. In my case, he said, “The likelihood is that the scar tissue will come back, so surgery probably wouldn’t have a long-term effect.” Plus, as Dr. Sharma so graphically put it, “Nerves in general don’t take a joke well, so the more you manipulate one, the more likely it is to have a more persistent dysfunction. If you had a big honking disc fragment causing the pain, we could have gone in again, but your imaging studies didn’t indicate anything other than some scar tissue and a slight herniation.”

So we started with anti-inflammatory medication and some aggressive physical therapy under the guidance of Debbie Bisaccia of Reforming Rehab in Harrison. Bisaccia gave me a vigorous core-strengthening regime to follow that included several different kinds of crunches, routines with the Swiss exercise ball, resistance bands, and Pilates reformer. The goal is to strengthen the complex net of muscles that surround the spine, reinforcing it and making it less susceptible to pain-inducing movement.

I got stronger, but the problems didn’t go away so I went for an epidural steroid injection, which is a cortisone shot like you might get for tendonitis. In this case, it goes into the spine while you lie wide awake and very, very still. I wasn’t worried, because the shot was administered by Dr. Maria Cabodevilla-Conn, the same angel with the needle who gave me the EMG, so I knew she had a steady hand. Believe it or not, the treatment hurt like hell for just a moment as the painkiller took effect, then was no more painful than a normal injection.

The epidural made a big, big difference. It looked like I wasn’t going to need surgery after all, but my leg and foot still acted up more often than I liked, so I started considering non-traditional options while I kept up my therapy routine at the gym (my generous insurance company refused to pay for further physical therapy, apparently because I no longer had one foot in the operating room).

My wife arranged a session for me with Toni Goodrich of the Yoga Center of Greenwich. She helped me into some Bikram Yoga poses and talked me through some stretches to open up the channels the nerves follow from the back, through the butt, and down the legs to the feet. When I told Dr. Sharma about the experience, he explained, “The sciatic nerve passes in and around the muscles in your buttocks and your legs. Those stretches keep those muscles from compressing and irritating those nerves.” Whatever. The yoga stretches really helped. I added them to my time at the gym and good things began to happen.

Part 2 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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