Lessons Learned From An Excruciating Bout Of Sciatica
2016-08-10 | John Carter
It’s easy to take our bodies for granted. After all, the human body knows what it is doing, and it is great at adapting to change. But there are times when we push it too far and it just . . . snaps…throws in the towel. And, a few years ago, that is what happened to me. I went through several months where I wasn’t sure what was going on with my body. Would I ever get back to normal again? Would the rest of my life be measured on how well I dealt with this physical pain? It was scary. It is my hope that by documenting my experience, it will help anyone who is going through the same thing. And, if this hasn’t happened to you, to provide insights into how a life of sitting at your desk can ruin your body, and what you can do about it in terms of prevention.
It all started when I woke up one morning and realized something was wrong with my lower back. I couldn’t move without yelling out in pain. I couldn’t sit without gasping. Those simple movements created knife-like stabs of pain that shot through my lower back, down the side of my right thigh, and into my ankle.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, my body was welcoming me to the world of herniated lower back discs and constant, throbbing sciatic nerve pain. Throbbing is fine. That’s what happens when I stood. I could take the constant dull ache.But bending, sitting, lying down, reaching, twisting, trying to put on socks . . . that is when the unbearable pain sat up and screamed hello.
I learned to avoid pain by contorting my body until the pain went away. I would then try to hold that position for as long as possible. Anything to make it stop. My life became all about making it stop.
I found out later that I also had Piriformis Syndrome, which is a when a band-like muscle located in the glutes near the top of the hip joint locks up. Not to worry, it’s only important if you like to walk or maintain your balance. Or move your legs at all. The two of these combined turned out to be a deal killer for me. What did I need to do to make this stop?
Of course, at this stage, I had no clue what was happening to me. I just knew I had never experienced pain like this. Constant and debilitating with throbs of unbearable. And it simply would not stop no matter what I did. I alternated between ice and heat. Nothing. Stretching was a joke and seemed to make it worse (I found out later it did, in fact, make it worse).
I can’t point to anything in particular that caused this mess. I’d like to be able to say, “I tried dead lifting 300 pounds.” Or, “I picked up all three of my kids and tossed them on the bed.” Nope. Nothing. Just a gradual nagging twinge that appeared one day and morphed over the course of 24 hours into sheer hell. At 44 years old, sitting at my desk trading and writing for the last 20 years had taken its toll.
And it’s not like I’m a slouch. I work out with a trainer, do the core strength exercises, and the year before I competed in a Tough Mudder, a 12-mile obstacle course race. And yet . . . my spine and hips threw in the towel. Of course, I only found this out later. I was still in the “no clue” part of my journey. I didn’t know my spine was locking up.
This went on for two weeks. I kept thinking it would start getting better. Like an idiot, I didn’t seek help. Though I did find a lot of useless information on the internet. I kept thinking I would wake up and “feel a little better” the next day. That wasn’t the case and, as it turns out, I couldn’t sleep anyway.
I may have already mentioned I couldn’t sit. Literally. I read entire books standing up, taking a break only when the bottoms of my feet hurt. A break consisted of me kneeling and hugging a bean bag. I watched movies standing up. I ate dinner with my family while standing up. I tried getting in a pool but I couldn’t do much in the water either. And I couldn’t lie down.
There were only two semi-comfortable resting positions I discovered. And I tried everything. The first, as I said, consisted of me kneeling on the floor and hugging a bean bag chair. This actually worked well. The main problem was my knees. After a while they went numb. I got to where I could sleep for about 90 minutes by hugging a bean bag while on a bed. But even with a comfortable mattress my knees would eventually cry out for relief. From this position my body would lock up, and I would have to spend about an hour slowly walking around, loosening everything up again so I could try sleeping one more time.
My next best friend was a hard wood floor. Lying on my back, on a hard wood floor, was a pain free event. Right up until the back of my head started going numb. Using a pillow to prop up my head didn’t work – that triggered the nerve pain. However, I could lay stretched out, or, better yet, with my legs hooked over a couple of pillows or an ottoman. I had no idea why these positions didn’t hurt, but they were welcome moments of “tolerable.” And at that point tolerable and pleasurable were the same thing in my mind. Later I learned that these positions moved the bulging disc off my sciatic nerve, and it opened up my piriformis muscle to the point where it wasn’t squeezing my sciatic nerve.
My saving grace was the markets. They were a welcome distraction. I could stand at my raised workstation and watch the markets and trade. The time flew by. I focused hard and traded well. Weekends, on the other hand, were pure torture. Each minute that passed felt like five. Sometimes ten. I stared into the void of agony and it beckoned me as my new companion for life.
When you have constant, stabbing pain, you can’t effectively interact with other human beings. “I love you,” I found myself saying. “But just leave me alone.” You can’t act happy, and you don’t give a shit about anything else but what you are going through.
What’s interesting is that throughout this entire process, I gained incredible mental clarity. Things I wanted to focus on stood out in bright bold letters. And, more importantly, things I never wanted to do again made themselves razor sharp and clear. I developed a new mantra of “Never complain, never explain.” I just started doing what I wanted to do and I stopped making excuses or being nice and polite about saying no. I just stopped answering emails that didn’t interest me. It suddenly didn’t matter if someone else got bent out of shape because my life didn’t fit into their agenda. Instead of worrying about that, I could just do what I wanted to do because I wanted to do it. “This person is probably going to get pissed off,” I’d think. And? Ah. That doesn’t matter anymore. Clarity.
In a strange way, even under this veil of constant pain, I was happy with this new found wisdom. The strain, however, was pushing me through the edges of sanity. At this point I was showering once every three days and not changing my clothes due to the misery of doing so. That routine started to get to me – it was not shrouded in hope.
After two weeks of this, I officially reached my breaking point. It takes a lot to get me really frustrated. When I was 16, I sat by my grandfather’s bed and watched the process of his dying. His older, 84 year old brother yelling at him. “It should be me there, not you. I was supposed to die first.” His looking at a check from a business deal in disgust. He literally pushed it out of his face. His crying about not pursuing his dream of becoming a lawyer (his father made him stay on the farm). These moments changed my life. It became very clear to me that it would be me on that bed in a blink of an eye.
And because of that I’m able to take a lot of bad news and put it in its proper perspective. I’m a trader. I get punched in the face all the time by the markets. Builds character, right? After all, soon we will all be ashes and dust, and our souls will move on to their next adventures. Yet even with this outlook, I still reached a moment where I could no longer visualize the bigger picture. In fact, I stopped caring about the big picture. I was just trying to make it through the next 15 minutes. It was no longer an interesting experience.
My wife saw the red flags waving. She realized I couldn’t take it anymore. Although she knows I’m an adult, she chastised herself for not wrangling me up sooner. I am, after all, her fourth child. And a stubborn one at that. She called the doctor, and forced me into the car. Here is a tip for you about riding in a car in this condition – you can’t sit like a normal person. It’s not tolerable. I had to kneel on the seat, turn around, and hug the head rest. This was tolerable. And, yes, everyone you pass on the road will look at you and wonder, “What in the world is going on in that car?” Just smile and wave.
Long story short, the doctor asked where it hurt, took x-rays, and said my spine looked fine. We talked a little about drugs, and she whipped out the prescription pad and started writing out dosages for Hydrocodon and Tramadol, which essentially dull the brain into a mild blissful state – so you don’t really care that you are hurting. These are opiate based narcotics, with Hydrocodon being stronger (and more addictive) than Tramadol. I’d never taken them before, but at this point I was willing to try anything. In addition to these gems, she also gave me Gabapentin, which dulls nerve pain. She said to take these with food.
After leaving the doctor, we went straight to the pharmacy to get these prescriptions filled, and then straight to the first food joint we could find. It turned out to be a Wendys. Now, I don’t eat fast food. I think it’s poison. But in this case I was willing to make an exception. It was the best damn cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten. Though it probably had more to do with the hope I had gained in popping a Hydrocodon and a Gabapentin in my mouth along with the salty beef patty. Note, for those of you venturing into the world of these drugs, the doctor said it was fine taking these two together, but not to take Tramadol and Gabapentin at the same time.
The next two weeks of my life was all about the drugs. They were both better than I thought and not as good as I thought. Though at this point I would have tried anything to dull the pain. With the drugs, the pain was still there. I just didn’t care as much.
So – did the prescription drugs help?
Yes. The first night I took the one Hydrocodon and the one Gabapentin along with the cheeseburger. I slept 3 hours in a row, in the bed, with my legs hooked over a bean bag chair. After that I had to get up and walk around and let my muscles loosen up – but three hours of sleep in a row was a miracle.
So the next night, I took two of each. The doctor said this was ok.
I slept great. About 5 hours.
This was important. Although the pain was still there in the morning – getting sleep started to help my sanity. I sensed the beginnings of no longer feeling like a prisoner.
For the next week, my drug routine looked like this: I would take a few Tramadol throughout the day (50 MG every 6 hours) and then at night load up on my 2 doses of Hydrocodon (it said 5-325 on the bottle) and Gabapentin (100 MG). This got me about 4 to 5 solid hours of sleep. When I woke up, I would have to decide whether to take one more of each, or just power through it. If I took one more of each, I was able to sleep another 2 to 3 hours. If I didn’t, I would lay in bed (feet hooked over the bean bag) and watch HBO GO on my iPad. I will note that I deliberately avoided the best shows and series. I wanted to save those for when I escaped.
As far as the drugs go, I recommend them if you are suffering and you can’t sleep. Are they addictive? Yes. Luckily, since they are narcotics, you have to talk to the doctor each time you get a refill. In other words, it is hard to stay on them, even if you want to. This is a good thing because they create a pleasant state of mind that you really don’t want to go away. Ever.
On the plus side, while on these drugs, I could attend my oldest child’s 8th birthday and interact socially. I could attend meetings and get through them and talk in an engaging manner. On the downside, I would stare at a power point presentation for hours, knocking out slides at a rate of about one per hour. I would just space out in a pleasant dulled out state. Time would just slip by. Or I’d go down a tangent rabbit hole of searching for useless information. I can see why people get hooked on these. They are fun. You can just coast through the day, and your life, in a checked-out mental state void of human interaction or caring. After the second prescription refill I reluctantly stopped. I could see that I could keep on doing this for a long time. It took me about three days to stop missing them. I haven’t taken any pain medication since. I’m not here to live life in a dull state of mind.
Why did I eventually stop with the drugs? In addition to the above, at the end of the day, they weren’t working. I slept, yes. But I wasn’t healing. I didn’t wake up feeling better. I lived the same day over and over again. It was time to try something new.
About this time, I remembered the doctor had also given me a prescription to a spine and rehab center. I’m not sure why I never called them. I just assumed things would “start getting better.”
At this point I had some decisions to make. I had a heavy travel schedule coming up where I would have lots of meetings and I would be giving presentations to live audiences filled with hundreds of people. The meetings and speaking didn’t bother me – I could do those in my sleep. What scared the shit out of me was 1) sitting on an airplane for 3 hours and 2) spending the night in a hotel room (I had accumulated a lot of bean bags, large pillows, foam rollers etc. to help get me through the night). At some point I realized I simply could not subject myself to multiple days of unknown levels of pain. I canceled the first trip, which was a trade show where I was scheduled to speak in Chicago three different times, as well as attend two important meetings. This was extremely hard for me to do. I keep my commitments. I don’t let people down.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the world didn’t come to an end.
I reluctantly canceled the next trip, which was a mastermind group of business owners that I like to meet up with a few times per year. Luckily my wife still went (I begged her to go – just leave me alone, remember) and she talked about my issue with a doctor who was part of the group. He got on the phone with me and said, essentially, “Drop what you are doing, get an MRI, and get physical therapy. You should not be in pain this long. I can’t believe no one has told you this by now.”
So that’s what I did. I remembered that prescription for physical therapy the doctor gave me. I called and asked for the first available appointment.
Long story short, physical therapy was a miracle. You don’t know what you don’t know.
It turns out, of course, that all the “stretching” I was doing was actually making it worse – reopening the wound, so to speak. As an FYI, bending over and touching your toes in this condition is about the worst thing you can do. On the other hand, they showed me exercises and stretches that didn’t make any sense to me at all. Lying face down on the floor and then propping myself up on my elbows for 5 minutes? Squeezing a ball between your legs? Yet I noticed immediate improvement. For the first time in 4 weeks, I had hope.
With something like this, a person becomes very motivated to not let the pain ever happen again. I wanted to find out why it happened, how I could fix it, and how I could do my best to make sure it never happened again. And I just wanted to understand. Nothing I can say here will do justice to the information I learned in the following books:
- Treat Your Own Back by Robin A. McKenzie
- 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back by Esther Gokhale
- Pain Free by Pete Egoscue
- The Great Pain Deception by Steven Ray Ozanich
The first book, Treat Your Own Back, is what they used at the physical therapy sessions. It’s a great resource and I wish I would have had it on day one of my adventure. The next book, 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back, shows how to sit in such a way as to lengthen the spine. It takes a few minutes to get the hang of it, but I could feel an immediate difference. It also discusses how to walk, bend over, etc., in such a way as to be healthy for your back and spine instead of detrimental to it. This book has a huge following among former back pain patients who, due to this book, have no more back pain.
The third book, Pain Free, really shows you how your body is tied together like a big shoe string. We are a series of skin bags held together my tendons and bones. The simple exercises demonstrated in this book help to unlock the knots before they become problematic. I still do some of the exercises in this book to this day as part of a morning stretching routine. It’s amazing how “tight ankles” can screw up your entire body. Like I said, I’m very motivated to never go through that again. As a side note, when a friend of mine experienced bad low back pain, I sent him links to Youtube videos of exercises put together by the “Pain Free” folks. He said he felt better within days. In addition to this, the mantra, “Wake, Water, Walk” was pounded into my head. Wake up, immediately drink a lot of water, and go for a walk. This routine fixes more problems than you can imagine.
The last book I came across is called, “The Great Pain Deception: Faulty Medical Advice is Making Us Worse.” This book is written by Steven Ray Ozanich and is a real eye opener. The best way to sum up this book is by saying, “We are a lot tougher than we look, and this is how our mind and body work together.” This was recommended by a friend who said the book changed his life. I couldn’t agree more. At the time, I was experiencing “mental strife” after having to initiate a lawsuit against a friend and former business partner. This book explains how that kind of stuff can harbor itself in the body and turn into pain, and it shows how to “release that crap.” I can’t say that would have worked without the physical therapy, but my progress improved dramatically about the time I read this book. Instead of tucking it away to be brooded upon forever, let that shit go and move on.
The first three books hit home one simple fact: How a life of sitting really screws up everything, from your neck down through your spine and hips to your knees and ankles and feet. It’s amazingly scary how the human body adapts to sitting still – but the adaptations eventually lead to the body giving out. A body adapted to sitting struggles to move around. This led me to getting a standing desk, as well as various wobble type boards to stand on to keep me active. When I sit, I prefer a stability ball.
For other therapies, I tried acupuncture with “cupping” and went to a chiropractor. Both of those didn’t do much to relieve the pain. I considered a steroid shot and surgery but in the end decided against both. The one therapy I found that worked great is a massage technique called Rolfing. I wouldn’t call it a relaxing massage. Your tendons and muscles are being gently yet firmly realigned. It just gets the body back to where it was before a life of sitting took its toll. I didn’t start doing this until after I started physical therapy. I wish I had started earlier. I did ten sessions and I do a follow up session about once per month.
The image below was taken after a “cupping” session during one of my acupuncture treatments. At some point the pain is so intense you’re willing to try anything…
Today I do the daily exercises found in these books, try to walk as much as a I can, work at a stand up desk, and drink a ton of water. It’s good to have positive goals in life. In this case, my goal is to “not go through that crap again.” I can’t say that it is a positive goal, but it’s having a very positive effect on my life.
If you are going through this, my heart goes out to you. It sucks. But there is hope. Today I’m pain free. I work out actively in the gym, including doing deadlifts (with proper form). And I’m motivated to stay that way. I hope you are too.