Central Sensitization, Creative Writing, eating disorders, My Story

How I developed central sensitization: Part 1

Here’s a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time: the story of how I personally developed central sensitization.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware that central sensitization occurs as the result of some sort of insult to the central nervous system.  Basically, if the body gets enough practice sending pain signals, it gets “better” at it– meaning you start experiencing pain more intensely, with less provocation.

So.  How did it happen to me?

As I’ve touched up in previous posts, my high school years were pretty rough.  Basically, a bunch of bad things happened in my life, too close together for me to know how to deal with.  When I look back on that time, it’s like my thoughts and emotions were tangled up in one big knot– a knot it would take me years to untie.

At the time, one of the ways I coped was with exercise.  I struggled with depression, and the endorphins I got from exercise were one of the only things that made me feel normal.  That one- or two- hour window each day after my workout was the only time I felt like the clouds lifted, and I could think clearly.

The other way I coped was by restricting my calories and keeping my body at an unhealthily low weight.  I’d perceived myself as being a little bit chubby at the time the bad things started to happen, and being skinny was part of the new me.  Paradoxically, with each ounce of flesh I was able to strip off from my bones, I felt I was adding a kind of layer of “protection” around me, ensuring that things couldn’t go back to the way they had been.

So, I was starving myself, and running an average of 40 miles a week.

***

I ran for my school’s cross-country and track teams, and before I go on, let me say that I loved running for its own sake.  And I was good at it.

But I took it too far.  For a while, my body’s natural ability allowed me to excel even as I got skinnier and skinnier.   I was hitting faster and faster times– winning medals, even– as more of my skeleton became visible.

Obviously, this was a recipe for disaster, and eventually I developed compartment syndrome in my lower legs.  It’s a condition that’s somewhat similar to carpal tunnel– basically, I had a lot of fluid being trapped inside of my lower legs.  I’ll write more about compartment syndrome later, but for now, let’s just say that it got worse and worse until I’d gone from almost being able to run a five-minute mile to barely being able to walk.

I suffered from compartment syndrome for the next two years before finally deciding to have surgery, and wow– I really wish I could take that decision back.  I wish I’d just had surgery sooner, because it really solved the problem almost immediately.

However, at the time, my orthopedist had suggested I try more conservative forms of treatment.  None of them really worked, but on some level, I was lost in my own inertia.

I had been trying, and trying, and trying for so long– forcing myself up at 5 am to work out, when I’d barely been able to sleep the night before because I was so hungry.  I was just done.

***

Those two years, from age 17-19, are somewhat of a blur.  I was still struggling with depression, although things improved dramatically after I graduated from high school.  I actually tried to work out in a pool but wasn’t really feeling it– ironic, because all these years later, the pool has become my second home.  But at the time, I was just too depressed to think or function clearly.

So I waited those two years, sometimes trying conservative treatment methods, sometimes going to physical therapy, sometimes working out in a pool.

The compartment syndrome was not so much excruciating as it was frustrating.  I knew where the limits were pretty clearly– how much I could push myself before the feeling of pressure built up in my lower legs, and my feet started tingling.

But it was still a constant buzz in the background, like an annoying mosquito buzzing around my ear for those two years.  I couldn’t forget about it– couldn’t even stand in line at the movies.  Whoever I went with had to stand in line while I waited on a bench.

***

I tried to go to college like all of my friends.  I actually went to a large Division I school, thinking somehow I’d get back into running.  But really, things were getting worse, and it was becoming harder and harder to walk.  There wasn’t adequate public transportation around campus, and I’d have to decide whether I wanted to walk to the library that day to get my books for class, or if I wanted to actually go to class.  My body couldn’t do both.

That’s when I realized this couldn’t go on, and decided to come home and have surgery.

***

The surgery itself was not very invasive at all.  The place where my orthopedist had to make a few incisions was very superficial (aka close to the surface) so he didn’t have to dig around too much.  I came home from the hospital that same day, and although I spent the following day completely knocked out with narcotic painkillers, by the second day I wasn’t even using my crutches (although I still had casts).

Everything seemed normal right after the surgery, although from what people have told me, surgery like that can be a big trauma to the body.

I didn’t notice anything right away– in fact, I was healing pretty well.  But, as I later learned, it’s possible that everything my nervous system had already been through– the constant bombardment from the compartment syndrome, as well as the surgery- would have a delayed effect.

***

As luck would have it, I had developed acid reflux right around then.  My doctor suggested I try sleeping propped up by pillows at night, so gravity could keep the acid down.

Big mistake.  I woke up after one night in absolute agony.  I had completely thrown my back out– the whole thing felt like one giant muscle spasm.

I had never had such a silly, simple little thing cause so much pain before.  The only injuries I’d had before had been serious running injuries, that came from pounding my legs into pavement 40 miles a week.  But this silly, little simple thing actually had me in excruciating pain.

And this– THIS.  After everything I’d been through, this is how my chronic pain problem started.

Looking back, I can see that it probably wasn’t just the issue of throwing my back out.  Instead, it was probably a combination of factors– everything my body had been through, coming together to create an overwhelming effect all at one time.  My nervous system had just had too much.

Of course, I didn’t know what it was at a time.  I had never heard of such a thing as central sensitization, and in fact, I wouldn’t– not for another six years.  I had a long road ahead of me.

To be continued in Part 2.

My Story

The road to physical therapy school

30165824241_93c7f9bf7a_k.jpg

It occurred to me recently that I really haven’t talked much about my progress towards becoming a physical therapist on this blog.

So, if you’re curious, here’s my deal:

I have a Bachelor’s degree in the humanities.  My concentration was social theory, with an emphasis on gender studies.

My goals, when I was in college, were focused in a pretty different direction than the path I’m on now: I wanted to study social policy, and travel abroad working for various non-profits and human rights agencies.  I also wanted to become a psychotherapist.

I started down that road immediately out of college, working at a mental health agency so that I could gain experience before grad school.

Before this, I’d already had a lot of struggles with chronic pain, and had to have surgery for compartment syndrome.  Yet after college, I’d managed to reach some kind of holding pattern where pain didn’t cause me to miss work.  That was, until the awful winter of 2010, when a few things happened in a brief span of time that caused my pain levels to flare way up.

That was my breaking point– when I tried, anew, to get answers.  Finally, after months of searching, I found my physical therapist Tim, who had studied pain neurophysiology education with Neil Pearson.

***

Ultimately, I was so inspired by everything I learned from Tim that it led me to consider becoming a physical therapist.

I’d always found physical therapy to be a fascinating field.  As a high school runner, I’d had a few serious injuries where I really needed PT to get up and moving again.   I had formed some great relationships with my therapists, and hung on every word they said.  A part of me was always a little bit sad when they told me I was doing well enough that I didn’t need to come back.  I would have gladly come back back every day, just to hang out and learn.

When I was a freshman in high school, I partially tore my hip flexor during a cross-country race and was on crutches for months.  It was a physical therapist who helped me overcome my fear and eventually start running again.

Then, when I was 19 and had surgery for compartment syndrome, it was a physical therapist who got me back up and moving again.  While I’ll always be grateful to the surgeon who fixed my legs, my PT was the one who gave me the confidence to actually start using them again.

And now, when my life had ground to a complete halt at age 25 because of constant, debilitating pain, it was a physical therapist who gave me my life back again.

I’d always had so much appreciation for PT’s.  Now, the idea dawned on me: why don’t I try to become one?

***

Growing up, I didn’t really consider myself that much of a science person.  Looking back, I think a lot of that has to do with the environment at my school, and how our science classes were taught.

Once I started looking into becoming a PT– taking classes, shadowing practicing PT’s– I realized I always had been interested in health science, and exercise physiology, and human anatomy.  It had just taken a different form.

I’d always wanted to do the best thing for my body.  I loved when my running coaches talked about strengthening, building endurance, the benefits of stretching.

And I’d always been interested in nutrition, and being healthy overall.

It’s just that when I was younger, I didn’t have the healthiest mindset, and took some of these interests too far.  But my eating disorder was not all of me– it was a snapshot of a specific place I was in, at a certain point in time, at a certain age.  Although I had some distorted beliefs, that does not mean I wasn’t also genuinely interested in health and fitness at the same time.

The difference is that now, I am able to come at it in a much healthier, stable, and more grounded manner, and know that I will be able to help others with similar struggles.

***

Five years later, I can say that I ended up loving all of my prerequisite classes, and I’m so glad I made the decision to take them.

It’s been an incredibly long road.  You see, some of the classes I needed to take had prerequisites of their own.  At the same time, due to my SI joint issues, there were periods of time where I found it incredibly difficult to walk, drive, or even stand up for more than a few minutes.

Despite of all of this, I’m finally at the point now where I’ve basically taken all of the classes I need in order to apply to PT school.  (I might need to take one or two more, depending on specific programs I might try to get into, but most of my bases are covered).

And honestly, I’m so glad I made this decision.  I realized that, while the humanities will always be my first love, I am also a science person, and have been all along.   I couldn’t see it at the time, but I know it now.

Chronic Pain, Creative Writing, eating disorders, Favorites, Inspiration, My Story

I only understood myself…

A few days ago, I went for a walk around this beautiful historical estate that’s practically next to where I live now.

I’ve been making some big changes in my life recently, and some of them have been pretty difficult.  This park feels like home to me, so I went there to clear my head.

IMG_2118.JPG

I walked around for a little while, and then stopped to lie down on the grass.  It was so peaceful, in the warm sun.  I just wanted to take in the moment.

And then I looked up, and saw this view:

IMG_2147

Suddenly, it hit me.

I thought back to the days in high school, before I got compartment syndrome, when I would have been here running.

Rushing, rushing, hurrying, going as fast as I could.  A high-intensity day. Three miles, in as little time as I could.

Or maybe it would have been an endurance day, and I’d be purposely holding myself back for the first few miles, so that I could stretch my run out to six or seven.

I loved running.  I loved pushing myself, the freedom.

But you know what I wouldn’t have been doing?  Looking around me.

Looking up, specifically.

You can’t really look up when you’re running, at least not when you’re outside.  You have to look at the ground almost constantly, to make sure an awkwardly-placed tree root doesn’t leave you on crutches for the next two months.

IMG_2107

I loved running.  Everything about it– the thrill of pushing myself, the endorphin rush, the adventure of being outside.

But it was always a blur.   Even when I ran through my favorite places– and I knew some beautiful trails– I was never able to stop and enjoy it.   In my head, it was keep going, keep going.  You have to burn calories.  You’re going to get fat.

IMG_2299

I could never pause, never rest.  Even on Sundays, when my coaches made all of us promise not to run… I tried to go for walks, but I just wanted to be running.

I’d be in the middle of the most beautiful nature scenes, and all I’d be able to think about was how hungry I was.  And how fat I was going to get from not running that day, from the meager calories I’d decided to allow myself.

IMG_1984

Things are so different now.

I can’t do the same things with my body that I used to, but I can look up.

I can go to a beautiful place, without having to spend almost the entire time staring at the ground.  I can stop if I want to; I can pause.

Don’t get me wrong; I will always love running, and exercise in general.  I love a good endorphin buzz even more than I love coffee in the morning.

IMG_2015

But I exercise now because I want to; not because I’m afraid of what will happen if I take a day off.

It’s such a crazy feeling, and I don’t know if anyone who hasn’t been through it themselves can know what I mean.

I know what it’s like to have the ability to pause, because at one point I lost it.

IMG_2112

(Check her out, she’s an amazing writer!  http://sadeandriazabala.com/)