On a scale of one to ten, I can usually keep the stress level at my job around a six. A couple of months ago, it went up to twelve. (Apologies to Spinal Tap, but eleven doesn’t cut it.) Around this same time, I noticed that my cat seemed skinnier than usual. I took her into the vet, and found out she had lost weight for no particular reason. Several expensive tests produced no result. Two friends also experienced difficulties, and shared them in great detail. Suffice to say, I spent most of the month of March with my shoulder muscles pulled up to my ears, in a vain effort to protect myself from any further bad news.
By the time I went to my doctor for my yearly physical at the end of April, I was complaining of back pain, and had noticed my left arm going numb when I worked on the computer.
One of my friends tells me that if you want a doctor to take you seriously, tell her something is bleeding or oozing. I can now add one to the list. Tell her something is going numb. I expected a lecture about stretching during my hours at the computer. Instead, she sent me down to the X-ray department immediately. Most of the time after a physical, I find out the results of my exam through the mail, about a week afterwards. This time, I got a phone call after two days, saying that a whole host of issues surfaced in my X-rays, and would I please make an appointment with a spinal specialist and start physical therapy immediately?
Yes, my back hurt some days, and a slight feeling of numbness showed up once or twice, but I was out of bed and walking around while all this went on. I wondered if I should collapse to a wheelchair immediately, before things got worse.
The paperwork from my physical showed up a few days later, and spelled out the results of the X-rays. According to the lab, I suffered from “mild kyphotic deformity, mild-moderate degenerative disk disease; possible spinal stenosis at the level of the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae.”
To say that I overreacted would be unjust. No, my reaction deserves a more dignified label, like “panic attack,” or perhaps “minor coronary.”
(Special love here to my friend Aundria, who listened patiently as I bemoaned how I would survive spinal surgery that no medical professional every mentioned I might have.)
In my defense, my family has a history of back issues. My dad had surgery on his back when he was not too much older than I am now. I was young at the time and I don’t remember all the details, but there was pain involved. Lots of it. I’m happy to inherit many things from my father, but that’s not one of them. His wit, his compassion, his thick hair? Yes. His bad back? No, thank you.
A quick google search (what did I do before google?) cleared up one thing: I couldn’t blame Dad for the mess that was me. Dad’s back issues all lay in the lumbar region. Mine were cervical. That’s right. I was a living pain in the neck. (My brothers are no doubt nodding acknowledgement, even as I type.)
For the uninitiated, kyphotic deformity is a fancy term for curvature of the spine. Degenerative disk disease means that the discs cushioning the vertebrae are breaking down. Spinal stenosis describes the narrowing of the hole in the center of the vertebrae for the spinal cord.
Yes, my doctor had thrown in a “mild” and a “moderate,” but when we’re talking about the space in which my spinal fluid is allowed to flow, how severe does the impairment have to be before I am allowed to freak out?
I entered the spine center with mixed emotions. On the one hand, my X-rays said I was a walking disaster. One the other, I actually felt fine. I hadn’t noticed any numbness lately, and my back pain had eased up so much that I barely noticed it anymore. Sitting in the waiting room only increased my disconnected sensation. Many of the other patients waiting with me were in genuine, noticeable pain, the kind that makes you wince from across the room. They called my name fairly quickly, which was good. A few more minutes of this and I might have convinced myself that there was a mix-up in the X-ray department and left.
Once in the office, I was glad I hadn’t bailed, because the attending physician was really cute. If you must discuss spinal stenosis, it helps to hear the details from someone pleasant to behold. His attractiveness only increased as he looked at my X-rays and told me, “I look at messed up spines all day. Yours is fine.”
The original technician was correct in noticing oddities in my spine, but they were indeed mild. Yes, my disks were degenerating. (So are yours, by the way – mine are just doing it a little faster. One more way in which I am an overachiever.) He didn’t see any overt signs of spinal stenosis. (A closer examination of the lab report described the spinal canal opening as “at the lower end of normal.” But the doctor told me he very much doubted that that was the cause of my pain or numbness. ”If it gets worse, we’ll revisit it. For now, try physical therapy.”
“Therapy” is a word I’ve gotten very familiar with over the years. Granted, it’s usually the talking kind, but I could still relate. Work on the problem a little at a time, come back every week, do some exercises in between. This is my comfort zone.
After leaving the appointment, my back pain was virtually non-existent.
I feel like I had a narrow escape. My pain didn’t last. Even the numbness hardly shows up, if I do what my physical therapist tells me. I’m still sure the stress played a part, but it turns out I also have extraordinarily bad posture when I’m at the computer. Turns out I stick my neck out too much. (Taking risks is okay, but literally sticking your neck out, no.) I crane my head out and up toward the computer screen. Why I do this is a complete mystery. Perhaps subconsciously I want the computer to feel like I’m really paying attention to it. (After so many years of people-pleasing, maybe I’ve become a machine-pleaser too.)
I’m not completely out of the woods. The deficiencies of my spine are real. (Dr. Hottie showed me the X-rays. I could see where the gaps between some vertebrae were narrower than others.) However, as long as they don’t get worse in a hurry, they shouldn’t present a problem. My current issues do, as I suspected, seem more tied to stress and behavior than genes. (Dad is off the hook – for now.)
At any given moment, somewhere on our planet, someone is at the doctor’s office receiving bad news. Somebody’s life is changing forever with a few small words. You tested positive for… The tumor is malignant… The results aren’t what we hoped… Of course when I reacted with horror at the initial assessment, my friends assured me that everything would be all right, but things like this remind me that sometimes things don’t. Sometimes, things are never the same again. When I think about that, I find it hard to put out of my head, at least right away.
How do I celebrate the fact that today all is well, without being terrified that tomorrow it won’t be? Well, mostly by living in today, and appreciating what is here, right now. Oh, and maybe just a little by knowing that even if the worst case scenario comes to pass, that will be okay too, if I learn to expand the definition of “okay.” We will all find unexpected grace along the road, wherever the road goes.
For today, I will turn my face to the sunshine and bask in it. As long as I pay attention to my posture and do my neck exercises faithfully, my physical therapist promises me I can still do that.
And from the midst of cheerless gloom I passed to bright unclouded day. -Emily Brontë
Kimberly needs to learn to spend less time at her computer. Zoë is in favor of this, and wants you all to know that she’s fine, by the way, even though Kimberly didn’t think it was important enough to mention. That’s okay. Zoë forgot to mention the hairball on Kimberly’s shoe.