Living With Chronic Back Pain

(This is a public service announcement. Chronic back pain is no joke. I’m not talking minor aches and pains. I’m talking every day is a struggle to do the most basic things. Don’t be stubborn. It isn’t worth it.)

Almost everyone, at some point in their life, has to deal with back pain. All kinds of things can bring on those nagging aches and pains that can go away with a little rest, ice/heat, or a visit to a chiropractor. Back injuries are becoming a very common issue, so that is why you see commercials for different remedies, and that is why you see heavy objects that have lifting techniques printed on their box. I won’t go in to the semantics or anything of it. I am here to talk about my personal journey with the awful and crippling pain that comes with a chronic back injury.

My back issues started in college. I played football, and I was reckless with my body. All in all, I blew out my knee, had 4 concussions that I know about, hurt my lower back lifting weights, damaged the nerves and vertebrae in my neck/upper back (which ended my career), and a litany of other injuries. For 15 years, I put my body through punishment, but I wouldn’t change that. I would have been more conscious of taking care of my body, but I would not have given up playing. I love football, and I wish I could have kept playing. I played for a small, underfunded college that did not have the advantages that bigger programs did. I don’t want to get too far off subject, so I won’t go off on a rant about the perceptions of football. I will save that for another post. So my first back/neck injury occurred in 2003 in combination with a concussion. I went through several weeks of treatment until I was symptom free. No lingering issues occurred besides minor head and neck aches over the next year, until I got another two concussions the following season.

After my second major neck injury and fourth concussion(2006), I went to a chiropractor who helped me work through most of my pain. I again had nerve and vertebrae damage. I was told to stop playing football. There was no “maybe” involved, either. It was a definite STOP PLAYING. So I gave up football. I didn’t want to, but I figured that I had punished my body enough. Everything was manageable at that point, so over the next few years it wasn’t an issue. I joined the Navy, and began working on helicopters (rather large ones) and that began to take a toll on my body. Combine that with the long runs they like to make us take, and my back started giving me issues again. This was also about the time that I realized that I couldn’t write longhand very long anymore due to severe hand cramps. I saw the Navy doctors, and they didn’t do much for me. I learned to deal with the nagging pain. It wasn’t crippling, but it was beginning to become a constant thing. The pain was mostly in my neck and upper back, but it was starting to occur in my lower back as well. I make it through my time working on helicopters, and move to a shore duty command. I think that maybe this will be easier on my back, so my pain might ease up. Oh, how wrong I was.

Let me tell you some of the side effects I experienced as a part of my back injuries. I damaged my neck when I got my concussions, but I had two incidents that I did diagnosed nerve damage on the right side of my neck. This caused a severe burning pain to go down my spine next to my shoulder blade. It felt like a really bad muscle cramp combined with someone sticking a hot poker in my back. Along with this, I would also get numbness in my right hand. This also contributed to the hand cramps I mentioned earlier. These effects would come and go. Some days were awful, and some days were pain free. Eventually, the left side of my neck and upper back started to mirror the pain from the right side. I don’t have the hand cramps or numbness, but the pain is as significant. The pain get to be so bad, that it triggers migraines. I also get tension migraines. My back has become a mass of knots and stiffness due to the fact that my spine has lost stability. Every once in a while, I would get lower back pains that would cause shooting pains down my legs (sciatica). All of these effects usually didn’t happen together, but individually, they were usually manageable.

2013 began the combination effects. I started to get migraines more frequently. My neck and upper back began to be in a state of constant pain and stiffness. I saw the doctor repeatedly, and they gave me muscle relaxers and Motrin (I LOVE Navy medicine…). After several rounds of this, they finally sent me to physical therapy (early 2014). After 4 sessions, the physical therapist sent me back to the doctor because I wasn’t getting any better. If anything, I was getting worse. You would think, X-rays would be next, but instead it was time for an MRI of my neck and upper back. The results showed some bone spurring, and several bulging discs (surprise!). I saw a chiropractor while visiting the in-laws in Charleston, and I was sent to an Air Force chiropractor (April 2015), who worked with me for several months. Though his adjustments did help, I was still experiencing migraines other effects I listed before. I began having headaches and migraines constantly, which led me to seeing a neurologist. After being put on two different medications, I was finally headache free. By now it is late summer, and I feel like everything is starting to finally calm down. I feel like everything is getting to a state of equilibrium, and several months pass with little to no trouble. This is when My lower back begins to start acting up. It started out as just a little soreness. It was very minor, and I hardly noticed it until it didn’t go away. Over several days it got much worse. The pain began branching down my legs and across my whole lower back. Even the simplest things became miserable. I suffered for a few days before I returned to the ever helpful Navy medical facility. More muscle relaxers and Motrin later, and I was off to the chiropractor. This is where things actually got interesting. After 8 months of seeing him, he said that I needed to see someone else. He believed that there was something else going on with my back, and I needed a pain specialist to look at it.

Let’s recap: I have seen 7 different doctors (3 Navy, 4 civilian), had an upper back/neck MRI, full back x-rays ordered by the chiropractor, went through physical therapy, and have has back problems for 12 years. This is the first time that someone has suggested I see someone who deals directly with nerve pain, which is clearly something I was dealing with. So I see the specialist, and he orders an MRI for my lower back. I get that done, and we review the results. I have several instances of facet joint arthropathy, which is where the bony joint on the vertebrae in your lower back pinches the nerves because of the degeneration of the disc between the vertebrae. I also had several cases of disc degeneration (duh) and also a herniated disc. So, as you can see, I had quite extensive damage to my back. The doctor, who was incredibly helpful and knowledgeable, decided that we needed to start with a series of injections. The first is called a Nerve Branch Block (NBB), and are used to help determine if the nerve is the root of the pain. A numbing medication and a steroid is injected in to the root of the nerve, and if it give you relief, then the next set of injections are a viable option. I got the first set of NBB injections on Tuesday, and they worked. So this week we move on to Radiofrequency Ablation injections. This is where they use a radio frequency to basically cauterize the nerve at its root. It sounds horrifying, but the nerve will regrow in 9-12 months. Once it does, there is a possibility that you won’t have to get shots again, but if the pain does return, you can get the RFA shots as many times as needed. Some people eventually opt for surgery, which may be where I go down the road. For now, This is where the Navy will let me go, so I’ll take it. It is something I will have to deal with for the rest of my life.

So, to wrap this all up, I leave you with this: don’t let back injuries get out of hand. If something is going on with your back, get it checked out. Don’t end up like me. I’m 31 years old with the back of a 50 year old. Take care of yourself, and be conscious of what you do to your body. I don’t advocate never doing anything that might get you hurt, because that’s no fun at all. All I am saying is be smart, especially when it comes to your head and back. You can’t replace your brain, and a messed up back will keep you from being able to enjoy a lot of things in life. I will keep y’all updated on the progress of my treatments and hopefully here in a few months I’ll be mostly pain free! Here’s to hoping!