Christine, Wondering

Random Musings of a Human Becoming

Friday, March 18, 2011


Who remembers those magic eye images that sprang into popularity in the early 90s? I had the original book - still do somewhere. You see what looks like a chaotic, repeating set of colours without meaning, then suddenly, after staring hard or going unfocused or wiggling the page in and out, the thing springs into 3D and suddenly you can see the raised image superimposed on the collage. Magic!

The point of this analogy is largely that I like analogies ;)

But more to the point, sometimes things that occur in our lives are like background colour, meaningless and unconnected until someone points out what's really there, and the real image becomes starkly obvious.

I have struggled with recurring neck/shoulder/upper back pain since I was a child. As a 9-year-old I was tested and prodded over bad headaches which were eventually cured with some physiotherapy on my neck. Not long after this, I suffered my first frozen shoulder, a condition that was to recur regularly (I can't think of a year that went by without at least one - some so bad that my shoulders were at uneven heights for days, this still in primary school!). I can remember from this age also having trouble adopting relaxed postures when sitting. I was stiff, I couldn't just flop without getting sore.

In my late teens I began supermarket checkout work to fund my uni years, and the problems moved from occasional to perpetual. Frozen shoulders, deep pain in my shoulder and neck joints, aches and pains. A hand injury when I was 20 exacerbated this with six months of slings and awkward postures.

Since then it's never got any better. A decade of struggling with pillows, trying out ergonomic chairs and always facing the speaker with my body because turning my head to look would get me painfully stuck that way. Dozens of attempts to sort out conditions that would soothe rather than inflame. I had physio from time to time when it got particularly bad, but with health insurance that only covered part of the fee I was never able to pursue this for very long (and besides, regular readers will know how good at asking for help I'm not). Last year a particularly bad flare-up during more supermarket work led me to spend several hundreds on physiotherapy gap payments, which made some progress with that particular crisis, but did nothing for the overall ongoing issue.

Recently, I had another bad episode, and woke up suddenly to the fact that most people aren't in constant shoulder and neck pain. They actually aren't. And maybe I shouldn't be either. Maybe I could not be.

So, I went to the doctor and got a physio referral. This physio took a proper history, felt my shoulders and neck and back, and was somewhat horrified. The soreness and stiffness is more widespread than even I'd realised, and is in the joints as well as the muscles. From the base of my skull to my waist, from one shoulder joint to the other, the whole thing is sore.

The physio sent me away with exercises, but said that if they didn't work I should come back in a few weeks and he would refer me for blood tests to look for inflammation markers; he believes that given the widespread nature of the soreness this might be something medical rather than mechanical.

This freaked me out somewhat, but I realised that since it's been ongoing for so long it's unlikely to be something that's going to progress to a serious illness. Then again, that too is daunting - if it's a chronic illness of some sort it could be grimly insoluble in its own way. But I swallowed my panic, and went off and dutifully did the two simple exercises prescribed as often as possible each day. And for a couple of weeks all was going well - my shoulders actually seemed to be getting better. Then, 12 days after the appointment, I had two days of severe headaches, and the next day got another frozen neck. Since then I've been back to square one - ongoing pain and stiffness at all times, burning pain in my shoulder, stiffness in my neck. :(

The follow-up appointment is tomorrow, and I'm trying to feel calm and reassured about what I'm going to have to do. I need to be my own advocate tomorrow: to make sure the physio understands that I did do the exercises and that the problem recurred regardless; and that I want to pursue the medical avenue, even if it comes to nothing, so that I can be sure. I will need to be firm, not be bullied, stand up for myself. This isn't easy for me.

However, I think I've reached a point where I'd prefer the emotional trauma of sticking up for myself to the ongoing pain. I can't keep living like this. I can't keep putting up with it. I can't live the life I want to live with a complex and debilitating set of muscle problems. It has got to stop.

So, wish me luck for tomorrow, as I tackle the medical profession head-on and give myself half a chance at a pain-free life.

I couldn't see the chronic pain for what it was until I looked at it from a different angle. I'm determined not to unsee it again.


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