Hell on Earth: My Quagmire of Pain

This is a long post, but it might possibly contain valuable information that may make a medical difference for you, a loved one, or someone else you may know. Some of you noticed that my online presence and professional output diminished greatly post-Spring 2011. I’d made previous comments about personal disability on my blog, Facebook and elsewhere, and many of you took note and wrote with your concerns. Thank you for caring! This is a story about my spine…

In March 2006 I suffered the blow of my life. As I often am, I was in Joshua Tree National Park enjoying camping, hiking, and photography in one of my favorite places on earth. Up until March 2006, I had been continuously adjusting to and ignoring general lower back pain that had been increasing for months: “I must have pulled a muscle”. One can only successfully manage pain up until the point of catastrophic failure: I awoke in the Park to excruciating pain and the inability to rise or walk. The very next day I was hospitalized due to an 8mm lumbar disc herniation. Two additional lumbar discs were bulged, and I was diagnosed with a host of degenerative spinal issues. I’ve carried a lot of packs in my life; I’ve taken serious falls while technical climbing; and genetics are against me. But at a young 38 years of age, I never would have imagined that I’d be hospitalized and completely debilitated. It was the worst time of my life; naturally, it came to a screeching halt.

Despite the recommendations for surgery, I was well aware of Failed Back Surgery Syndrome and I instead elected to self-rehabilitate only with several forms of physical therapy and exercise. I came home with a walker and graduated to a cane. I was told that if I committed and worked hard, I could be back at play and work in 6-12 months. I listened, I desperately worked at it, and I recovered despite how at-the-bottom I felt at that time. It was an amazing journey, and by 2007 had worked my way back to backpacking with a camera kit. I rejoiced and my core was strong like never before.

Fast forward to July and August 2010, when I led two backpack photo tours into the High Sierra. Both tours were excellent, and I felt physically healthy and strong. Yet shortly after the August tour, I began to once again feel a tinge of pain in my lumbar spine, and slight worry began to set in. By early November 2010, I began to fully realize that I was quickly sliding in the wrong direction, and I had new lumbar MR images taken. Uh-oh. The new images revealed that *all five* of my lumbar discs were now bulged, yet none thankfully herniated. I got back into assisted physical therapy, and remained there for months. I did everything right and everything that I was supposed to do, yet unlike 2006, the therapies were not at all helping (ultrasound; acupuncture; traction; massage; TENS, exercise) and I was getting no better despite my efforts. It was frustrating and discouraging. Everyday life was becoming a challenge.

By May 2011, I was a physical wreck. There was not one moment per day that I was free from pain and discomfort. Sleep loss became routine (forget the bed; I slept on the floor for months), appetite- and weight-loss ensued, and before I knew it, I was not able to leave the house other than for doctors appointments. The only way for me to get through each day and night was through the legal use of opiates. And not even Oxycontin could alleviate my pain or help me to sleep. I quit caring about photography and life, and wondered if this was my new future. I really felt at the bottom when I recognized and was confirmed with muscle atrophy. My own mother suffered from chronic pain for more than twelve years. I had endured less than a year’s worth, and it was already too much (my mother was an incredible woman, it turns out).

My wife is a career Registered Nurse and knows just about everyone in her medical field. We sought recommendations and the very best doctors. I saw a respected spinal surgeon who declined to operate (Thank you, Dr. Chen). I followed up with a recommended neurologist who diagnosed me with neuropathy (nerve damage) in both legs (more depression!). I once again felt finished, but this time at the age of 43. A few more weeks of chronic pain passed, and then I saw another neurologist for a second opinion. He, too, was unable to diagnose the exact cause of my pain, nor was he able to suggest anything or anyone that could help me. To further corroborate lack of diagnosis was my regular pain management doctor, who insisted that my pain was indeed a result of lumbar disc compression issues (why didn’t Dr. Chen agree?).

By August 2011, after living with chronic pain and sleeplessness for months on end, I’d had enough. This was not the way I was going to live out my days, and being a full time Netflix’r and pill popper was not a lifestyle I sought. Despite my wretchedness, I decided to take control of my situation and began doing hours of online research (while squatting before my desk; sitting was still physically impossible). Thank goodness for the amazing WWW – I learned of something called Piriformis Syndrome (also spelled Pyriformis). Piriformis Syndrome is almost symptomatically identical to sciatica. Consequently, many doctors and surgeons who are inexperienced with Piriformis Syndrome (as mine were and as most are) will often overlook this diagnosis. Until then, I had never really quite known of the piriformis muscle (many back pain sufferers ultimately become quite knowledgeable about anatomy) even though piriformis stretches were part of my repertoire. After reading through pages and pages of forum posts from suspected piriformis sufferers, I became positive that this was my affliction, and I would allow no doctor to tell me otherwise.

Thank goodness for YouTube: I located a number of myofascial release exercises and stretches for the piriformis muscle, and immediately got to work (even though the initial pain was severe). Within one week (ONE WEEK!), the majority of numbness in my left leg was gone, and my pain level went from 9+ to 5-. On August 16, 2011, I revisited the second nuerologist, who upon my request injected my piriformis with cortisone. Within a few days of the injection, I stopped taking ALL medications (including Advil); the numbness was entirely gone; and my pain was a fleeting memory. It seems virtually miraculous, yet the miracle is that I had the courage to fight and take control despite my misery and the overwhelming darkness at the end of my tunnel.

I am very happy to report today that I have quickly swung back into business after months of inactivity and suffering. I am back to camping, hiking, and photography, and last week went on assignment for The Wilderness Society (an upcoming blog post). It’s great to be back at work. It’s even better to be back outside again where I can feel the desert winds blowing, hear coyotes howling, and watch the sun start and conclude a day. I am back and life is good!

The moral to this [long] story is that sufferers will suffer when they place their hopes and outcomes entirely within the hands of doctors or others. You are the #1 advocate for your care and for your situation. Empower. Fight like hell. Never quit. Research and understand Pirifromis Syndrome if you suffer from sciatica and are getting no relief despite your best efforts. Most of all, find a doctor who will listen to you, because this is your life.

Who’s joining me this weekend for a Star Party in the Mojave Preserve? 🙂

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website.