Monday, December 12, 2011

Overcoming Back Pain With Ridiculous Magical Thinking

I was putting a shirt on, reaching behind my back trying to catch the sleeve, when I felt that old familiar sting. Right in the sweet spot, in the meat behind my left collarbone. It hadn't yet spread through the whole muscle -- it was like the first pinprick before the poison goes in.

I knew immediately that I was in for another dance with my old friend Shoulder Pain. Shoulder Pain has been with me on and off since I was about 22. Sometimes it lasts a couple of weeks, sometimes for months, and it is always just delightful. The area between my neck and my shoulder fossilizes, making turning my head, tilting it, or looking up or down bitterly painful. No matter what your lifestyle, this is going to put a crimp in it.

I have probably gone through a dozen or so bouts with Shoulder Pain. The first was undoubtedly the worst. I returned from a snowboarding trip unable to turn my head in either direction. As time wore on, a sharp stiffness spread from a spot by my neck I could massage with one finger to eventually afflict my entire left shoulder and neck, under my arm, and eventually over to the other shoulder. Six weeks in, I could find no comfortable way to hold my head, other than laying on a soft pillow, and 12 weeks in I felt like if I wanted to start crying, I could do it on command, anytime.

Desperate for relief, I ignored my accountant's advice and went to a chiropractor.  She did not help me.  If anything, she made it worse: moving my head into exactly the positions that sent electrifying, sharp pain right down the center channel, the positions I had been training myself for the last three months to avoid. I tried to relax and let her do her thing but my body tried to protect itself on instinct, and resisted everything she tried to do. I left $300 poorer and in more pain than before.

Around this time, some of my best friends were living in a big house/small commune situation -- a 5-bedroom house in Northern California that was home to my friends (a married couple with a baby), plus another couple with a baby, a really weird guy with a shaved head that preferred nudity, and a prickly lesbian couple clearly not thrilled to encounter men in any context. Other than my friend, all the women in the house were new-agey massage therapists, and I longed to ask one of them, any of them, for help with my shoulder.

I craved a deep, kneading, yet gentle massage of the meat behind my collarbones like I had never wanted anything else, ever. The way you can taste a burger the second you lay eyes on it if you're hungry enough, when I saw any one of those three women I could already feel how healing a simple shoulder rub would be from someone with the right touch. But I was young and broke and did not perceive any social cue or conversational opening to ask any of them for help. The lesbians were frosty to males in general, and the other one was busy with a 2-year-old. I never asked any of their fees, but I was made to understand that I couldn't afford them.

One night they had a huge party at the big house/small commune, and with my inhibitions lowered I found myself on a small couch in a small room with the cuter of the two new-agey lesbian massage therapists, who was also the one who seemed most viscerally averse to my presence (as a straight male). Of the three new-agey massage therapists I was afraid to approach for a free shoulder rub, this one is the one I saw as least approachable. But my inhibitions were lowered and I assumed hers were as well (it was going around that night) so I blurtingly begged her to help me with my neck.

She touched it for a second, and asked me how I hurt it. Then we talked for about an hour, and she didn't touch me again until I gave her an awkward hug at the end of the conversation. That conversation has, in the 15 years since, been the basis of my having not quite conquered, but found a way to manage my semi-regular visits from Shoulder Pain.

She grilled me about everything. She started by having me describe the pain, and how it developed, and then she asked about my work, my family, my love life, my diet, my hobbies, hopes, dreams, everything. My inhibitions were lowered, so I answered all her questions in full. Then I sensed we were coming to the end. She began to speak in the tone of a summation:

"Every time you touch your neck -- and you haven't stopped touching it since we've been sitting here -- you say something like 'it hurts so bad' or 'it's not getting better' or 'I've tried everything.' Your body listens when you talk to it, and you're telling it it's hopeless. Tell it it's getting better."

Here I have to mention that under any other circumstances, I would have laughed in this person's face for that advice. Even now, it sounds like the worst kind of New Age feel-good hippie crapola, and I'm embarrassed to even type it.

"Try and picture what's wrong. You keep calling it a 'pinched nerve.' Picture what a pinched nerve looks like, and then picture what it would look like if you had a time-lapse of it healing."

Again, I realize this is ridiculous. I'm having second thoughts about this blog topic. Is it too late to write about Sex and the City 2?

"You have a lot of anxiety, and you're holding a lot of stress in your shoulders. Your body wants to heal, but your anxiety is kind of drowning it out -- your muscles got extra tense trying to protect the tweak in your neck, and once it starts hurting you start focusing on the pain. Try to focus on it getting better. If you feel it hurting, try to imagine that the pain is just part of the healing process, that you're feeling your muscles mend themselves. Your body wants to heal, you have to stay out of its way."

How did I feel about all this at the time? Above all, I felt bitterly disappointed that I only got about 8 seconds of shoulder rubbing. I also felt like everything this girl was telling me was total bunk, and no likelier to make me feel better than lighting a certain kind of candle (which she also suggested). But the fact is I was desperate, and in the particular state of mind most susceptible to this kind of thing. If she had told me to shout "Beetlejuice!" three times I would have tried it. So I imagined what my pinched nerve looked like and I tried not to say it hurt out loud and I said "it's getting better" to myself like a mantra. A week later, the pain was completely gone.

So, even though I know it sounds totally stupid and hippy-dippy to almost everybody, myself included, when I get the familiar pain, as I have probably a dozen times since and as I did putting on my shirt last week, I realize that I'm in for another round of agony, but I'm able to overcome it pretty quickly. Rather than being in excruciating pain for months, I can straighten myself out after an excruciating week or two.  As I write this, Shoulder Pain tapped me on the shoulder nine days ago, completely ruined the best part of a week, but today is the first day I feel like I'm totally back to normal. The little games I play with myself have changed over time, and are now more my own invention than what the new-agey lesbian massage therapist started me off with.

Let's take this last round as an example. I somehow pinched a nerve between my neck and shoulder when I was putting on my shirt, and that hurt for a moment. Almost immediately after, my shoulder and neck muscles started tightening and I started feeling pain when I turned my head. That pain was, I imagined, the muscles surrounding the affected nerve, going on the defensive, trying to stop me from further injuring it. (Is this in any way medically correct? I have no idea. That's not the point.) Once muscles get that clenched up, it's hard for them to unclench, and anxiety -- anxiety about getting your muscles to unclench included -- is not helpful.

I have trained myself, once the onset of Shoulder Pain begins, to be conscious of when I am clenching the shoulder muscle, and I have learned that once Shoulder Pain begins I have an unconscious tendency to clench it about 99% of the time. So when I'm in the throes of Shoulder Pain Week, I constantly check in with myself: am I clenching? If I am (and I almost always am), I consciously (but slowly) relax it. It is truly amazing what you can catch your body doing without your permission.  Many, many times I have noticed that I was not very comfortable in my chair and then realized that I had one shoulder completely clenched up to my cheek and my back twisted around and over like Quasimodo.

A lot of people have back pain, and there are very few things worse. I don't claim to have solved the mystery of back pain. I'm sure it comes in flavors and intensities that I cannot fathom. I don't mean to suggest for a moment anything as facile as "it's all in your head." I don't want to say that I've learned to heal myself by the power of positive thought -- that's also too facile. It's more like I've learned not to make it worse with the cancer of negative thought, or anxiety. It is not always easy to tell yourself "it's getting better" when it's clearly not. When it hurts, Oh My God It Fucking Hurts. I struggled with it all last week and even while trying to Jedi Mind Trick myself I was full-on miserable for two or three days. 

But I tried to remember: I knocked something out of whack putting my shirt on, my body needs time to heal and the best thing I can do is stay out of its way: sit up straight, keep everything aligned, don't tense up. And now I'm back to not even noticing that I have a shoulder, because everything's fine. I have no idea if my experience can be helpful to anyone else, but it's what I've been thinking about this week, so there you go.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to run a eucalyptus bath with tea tree oils, light some therapeutic scented candles, and rub some healing stones on my Ouija board.

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