A PSA on Back Pain

Oh, Canada. I don’t know much about you, but stumbling upon this informative video about low back pain that was funded by the government of Ontario gives me the sense that you care about your people. I wish I’d found the video sooner….

Back in early February I “threw out” my low back, a debilitating and scary event for anyone, and even more so for someone who depends on her body to earn a living (yipes, I mean as a massage therapist!). Fear moved into my heart, and it squeezed out most of my knowledge from massage school about acute low back pain.

At the end of the month, I blew out my back again at work and was forced to take a month’s leave to repair, rehabilitate and rest. David Bowie’s mournful “Space Oddity” became my soundtrack as I floated in a bubble of fear and uncertainty. It’s amazing how irrelevant I can feel when I’m not working, and how lost I become when out of contact with friends and coworkers.

Things started to get better. And then they didn’t. When my back went out a third time in the middle of March, my doctor ordered an MRI, which I’d been curious about for a while. The imaging center sent me home with a CD of raw images and the promise to get the written report to my doctor soon.

And then there was radio silence. Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Something I’ve learned is that uncertainty can breed insanity. I called and called my doctor, but he said the report still hadn’t arrived. A week after the scan, I was bored. I was curious. Nobody was telling me what was going on, so I popped the CD into my computer and started clicking.

And this is what I learned: if you’re untrained in medical imaging and you have the chance to see a scan of your body with nobody there to interpret it, please don’t take that chance. I compared my images against what I found online (another no-no) and found a bulging disc. What was even more alarming was the dramatic curve of my L-4, L-5 and sacral bones. There it was, the confirmation that I was a hot mess. Holy beans, I had scoliosis all these years and never knew it. No wonder things are so messed up for me now. 

A crazed weekend and more phone calls to the doctor got me nowhere. Finally, I brought the CD to my physical therapist. She explained that the imaging specialist may have positioned me crookedly on the table, and that the spine is meant to be that mobile. As for the bulging disc (actually two), she told me that they may or may not be the reason for the pain.

She showed me an article with an enlightening graph. A study was done on a number of symptom-free subjects of all ages. Even in their 20s, around 35% had some signs of disc deterioration. That percentage takes a leap to 70% in the 40s. And these people were walking around, feeling fine and whatnot.

This led me to do my own research and find the video that the good people of Ontario funded. It advises against getting an MRI unless absolutely necessary. And I now understand why. This stuff messes with our heads. It can lead to psychosomatic symptoms and further dysfunction. And here’s even more proof.

For some, ignorance truly is bliss. I wonder what happened to those asymptomatic people in the MRI study once they caught a glimpse of their images. Did they feel a little stiffer, a little achier the following morning? Yep, I thought so.

The mind is a powerful, wondrous thing. As for me, I got the official word from my doctor that I was just overcoming back strain. He told me not to worry about the bulging discs and to keep strengthening my core. Motion is lotion, so all we can do is keep moving, through back pain and in life.

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