Continued from Part 1
My doctor said I had what was called “glass back” syndrome. Every muscle, from my neck to my lower back, was locked in spasm. Even the smallest movement could set off a domino effect, each muscle triggering the next, until my entire back would feel like a blaze of pain. I was so sensitive to movement, it’s as if I was made of glass.
The only time of day when things didn’t hurt was when I first woke up in the morning. For those few seconds before I moved, I would feel okay. Then, when I turned to roll out of bed, bam! The blaze of pain would return.
I learned to keep my bottle of painkillers next to me when I slept. That way, when I woke up, I didn’t have to reach very far for a pill. I would gingerly edge my fingers along the mattress, grab the bottle and open it.
That would be it– the only motion I’d perform. Reach over, take out a pill, put it in my mouth, swallow. And then wait until I felt it set in; everything would become dull, and a little less horrible. I was a little farther inside myself, but at least I was also farther away from the pain.
Tramadol, Tylenol, Advil, and a muscle relaxer. And Bengay cream. And heating pad at night. These were all the things I needed to make it through– if you can call it that.
Part of what made it worse is that I was treating my back pain like it was a running injury. That was the only type of injury I’d had before, and with all of those injuries, the important thing was to rest.
I later learned that with a back issue such as this (it wouldn’t be accurate to call it an injury) it’s actually really important to move, and strengthen the back muscles. To an extent, you have to keep moving in spite of the pain, because if your muscles get weak, things only get worse.
But I was young, and I didn’t know. In fact, I was tough; I was an athlete. I’d never had “injuries” before that hadn’t been caused by a serious amount of force travelling through my body, my feet pounding into the pavement at sub-6-minute mile pace.
I was not at all familiar with this kind of pain– the kind of pain that kept spiraling beyond my grasp, beyond my wildest efforts to control it. The kind of pain that seemed to be caused by almost nothing.
So, I thought, I needed to rest. That’s what I’d done for all my previous injuries. I didn’t want to strain anything, or break anything. With this amount of pain, rest.
In the midst of this, I was due to start at the new school I had transferred to; a small liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts. I contemplated not going, but ultimately I decided to take the plunge. I didn’t want to miss out on yet another experience.
Luckily, I could physically make it to class– the campus was walkable, and my legs had healed completely from the surgery.
But a lot of the time, I couldn’t concentrate. I remember being in class knowing I was feeling the exact moment when my last dose of tramadol wore off, counting down the minutes until I could go back to my dorm room and take another.
And then, once I was safely back in my room, I’d briefly fall asleep. Not from the tramadol (my body got used to it after a while) but from the sheer exhaustion of trying to stay awake through something so excruciating. It was as though my conscious mind needed a break from experiencing this much pain, and sleep was the only way out. So I’d fall asleep, and leave reality behind for a little while.
The way out, as I learned in physical therapy, was to get out of bed and keep moving as much as possible. I started going for walks– long walks, which I might have once thought impossible before my leg surgery. This, as my PT explained, helped to increase blood flow, flushing out some of the pain-producing chemicals in muscles, and also “acting like a giant heating pack from the inside,” helping the muscle to relax.
Additionally, I started doing specific exercises to strengthen my back muscles.
And you know what else? I took my painkillers.
Contrary to what you might expect, my doctor at school totally understood what I was going through and encouraged me to actually take the full amount of tramadol she had prescribed (up to 6 pills a day), if it would help me move more.
From her, I had my first real experience with understanding pain science. She explained that, with “glass back syndrome,” the pain sort of became its own cycle. As the muscles would spasm and create pain, this would actually cause all of the other nearby muscles to tighten up as well, to protect the area.
The painkillers, it turned out, were actually helpful in reducing those pain signals telling the muscles to spasm. When I took them, I was able to go for walks, and do my exercises, and get stronger.
(This experience is one reason why I will always believe in the power of prescription pain medication to help chronic pain patients. Without it, I truly believe my recovery would have taken much longer).
Eventually, my back got stronger, and the all-encompassing muscle spasms finally stopped. I found I no longer needed the tramadol, and I stopped that too.
However, though my “glass back syndrome” eventually subsided, the pain would never fully go away.
To be continued in Part 3!