• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Learning New Tricks

Moving past pain.


March 1, 2015

Yesterday ended nearly two years of chronic pain. I am still taking this in.

I've alluded here before to the interlocking medical issues I have been dealing with. Briefly, I have an autoimmune disorder that went berserk several years ago and required 6 months of corticosteroids to get it back in the cage. The steroids, in turn, sucked the calcium out of my bones. To restore them from Swiss cheese back to cheddar, I have had to take an increasingly aggressive series of medications.

I started on the most recent drug in the winter of 2013. It is administered by injection once every six months. The morning after the first injection, I woke up unable to move my left shoulder, or to tilt my head toward my right shoulder, without excruciating pain. Even when I soldiered through the pain I couldn't move very much.

I tried to work it out in the pool and Jacuzzi at my health club, but the relief was minimal. My doctor said the new drug couldn't have caused the neck/shoulder problem. It wasn't on the list of possible side effects (mood swings and immune suppression were on the list; I had both and they weren't fun either. But the neck/shoulder thing was torture). I must have "done something" to it. She gave me a steroid shot, which gave some relief, but I really, really didn't want to take any more steroids, so when that wore off I tried to just live with it.

Then, a year later, something similar occurred with my left hip. One day it was fine, then I got the injection, and the next morning I woke up in agony, which was again diagnosed as a pulled muscle or pinched nerve or something unrelated to the drug.

I am a musical improviser with both a weekly gig (which requires weekly practice) and fairly frequent freelance performances. Several nights a week I am required to sing and dance (or in my case "dance"—I was terrible even before this happened. My singing voice and acting/improvising abilities carry me through, and fortunately, the stages tend to be small, but I still have to move and jump around onstage). Fortunately(?), as a kid who was threatened and hit a lot, I learned to dissociate from my body while still appearing to inhabit it. It is a skill that comes in handy more often than you might think. But I can't keep it up forever, and it also blunts any enjoyment I might derive from these activities that I'm pursuing, after all, for love.

A few months ago, a friend passed on an article from a highly respected health newsletter. It turns out that the symptoms I had been complaining about are surfacing as side effects of the injections. The authors suggested strongly that no one take this drug.

It should have left my system this month, but I didn't feel any different. I started thinking it would be a permanent artifact of the treatment. Then a friend suggested I visit her doctor, who is also an acupuncturist and herbalist.

I had two sessions with him this week. The first was an exam and brief introduction to acupuncture, to see how well I tolerated it. It was fine; I thought I felt a little better afterward. Then, yesterday, he did a more intensive treatment, involving electrodes as well as needles. At the end, I could move my shoulder, neck and head—not 100%, but probably around 75% of the movement had been restored.

I met a friend for dinner afterward. Before I told him what had happened, he said, "You look like something has taken 10 years off of you!" When I got home I excitedly demonstrated my head tilt for Ben, who was appropriately impressed and delighted.

I woke up this morning with sore muscles but continuing freedom of movement. (My hip remains problematic, but I feel hopeful that we will address that successfully as well.)

I have been thinking all morning about how easy it is to get stuck in one way of looking at problems, when there may be an entirely different solution just waiting to be noticed.



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