Have you ever had one of those moments when you look back and think, "Geez, if I'd only done one little thing differently...?" That pretty much sums up my entire relationship with sciatica. One small misstep changed my life. I can look back now and laugh, but while I was navigating it on a daily basis, I thought my active life was over for good.
It was one of those gorgeous fall mornings when the air was crisp but the sun still beautifully warm against my skin.
I was strolling back from my youngest kid's bus stop when I felt my phone vibrate. Assuming it was my husband texting me a reminder about our date night that evening, I eagerly pulled out my phone, fired up the screen and, suddenly, my feet were flying up in the air, and the sidewalk was approaching fast. I remember thinking, "I am sooo glad I'm not wearing a skirt!" as my tailbone made contact with the concrete. I lay there stunned for a moment, pain shooting through my right hip, but otherwise seemingly unscathed (except for the elementary school-quality skinning of my elbows).
Naturally, this was the moment our neighbor Jackie decided to come out of her front door, and she promptly began to scream my name like I was laying in a pool of blood and not just sprawled gracelessly with my head crushing the blooming chrysanthemums in her border garden. She pulled me to my feet, and I looked around, trying to figure out what had just happened. Then I saw it.
You know the old banana peel slip-and-fall joke? They had it all wrong. It's not a banana peel; it's a slimy, rotting windfall apple. Yep, I had stepped on one of the casualties of a brisk autumn breeze. I started laughing hysterically and noticed my rump ached, and so did my right leg. I finally glanced at my phone and saw that the text wasn't from my husband but rather a reminder to have the sprinklers flushed. I doubled over in laughter while Jackie helped me hobble home, looking a little concerned at my somewhat delirious mirth.
The days following my little accident, I was sore. Really sore. I was still experiencing the shooting pain down my right hip and leg; it was bad enough that I started skipping some of my yoga classes. It came and went, so I thought I'd just bruised something pretty severely. I had always been athletic, so I figured I would bounce back quickly. Little did I know that I had a much bigger problem brewing.
Thanksgiving morning rolled around about a month later. I got up early (way too early) to start preparing our feast for the day. I hadn't slept well -- the throbbing ache in my lower right back was particularly unrelenting. I popped a couple of ibuprofen and set to the day's duties. By noon, I was literally dragging. My leg felt as though it was made of stone, and it was alternating between an agonizing, radiating pain and a somewhat unnerving numbness. By the time everyone had headed home for the evening, I could barely walk. This was when I decided I needed to seek some medical help.
I went to our family practitioner the Monday after Thanksgiving. She checked me over thoroughly and, after listening to my fruity tale of woe, told me she thought I might be suffering from sciatica. To rule out a broken coccyx, she referred me for x-rays and a visit with a neurologist. That was fun. Fortunately (or unfortunately -- I'm not sure which), there was no evidence of a fractured tailbone or a ruptured disc, so the neurologist, too, told me I very likely had sciatica. He sent me home with instructions on icing my rear in addition to a prescription for some oral steroids and narcotic pain relievers. He also recommended I use one of those stinky muscle pain-relief creams from the drugstore. I was given the reassurance that most cases of sciatica didn't last more than 12 weeks. He seemed so confident this would clear it all up that I left his office in giddy anticipation of feeling better within the next couple of days.
I did start to feel a little better with the steroids and opioids. The pain was greatly decreased, and when it started to rear its ugly head, I just popped a hydrocodone, and everything was once again wrapped in fuzzy softness. Eventually, I tapered off the course of steroids, but still had my pain meds to rely on when things got hairy. I should mention that I'm a lightweight, and one of these things was like a full-blown trip to happy WonkaLand. While grocery shopping one afternoon, I started to feel the telltale ache filling my lower back. I literally started to panic when I realized my pain meds were at home.
Was I becoming an addict in one short month?
Christmas was looming, so I spent a lot of time shopping for our numerous family members. It was a struggle to get from the car to the store and back without wanting to sit down and cry. I dreaded having to travel the four hours by car to my in-laws for Christmas Day. The only relief came when I could take that hydrocodone.
I told my husband about my addiction concerns, and he sprang into action. That's one good thing about being married to a Type A personality. He always gets on top of anything that might fall by the wayside for the less anally retentive. After reading for an entire afternoon, he declared that I should seek the help of a chiropractor. At this point, I was willing to try anything. Attending my teenage daughter's miscellaneous sports games had become agonizing; sitting was out of the question, but standing didn't make things much better. I'd also quit attending yoga altogether, noticing my once-fit muscles starting to sag and become soft. So off to the chiropractor I went.
I was supposedly severely out of alignment, which the chiropractor said was likely due in part to my fall and thus contributing to the daily pain I was now experiencing. I went to thrice-weekly adjustments and did all the exercises he gave me. I noticed small changes in my level of pain, but it wasn't fully alleviated. By the fourth week, I was done. I gave up on the chiropractic. The rest of my body felt great, but my lower back and right hip and leg were still giving me nothing but trouble.
By February, I had gained 10 pounds and avoided doing anything that required me to be on my feet or walking for any extended period of time. I'd tried new insoles in my shoes, massage therapy and even herbal supplements touting all-natural pain relief. I'd quit taking the opioids for fear of developing a serious addiction, so I couldn't rely on them for the days when things really flared up. I made arrangements with other parents on bad days, so my kids had transportation to and from sports and after-school activities. We ate a lot of frozen prepared meals. I had all but given up.
Luckily, my sister returned from her two-year overseas assignment mid-February. She was looking for a new apartment, so was staying with us for a few weeks until something came along. When she noticed what a mess I was, she went into mother hen mode. She took over the cooking and shopping. With her telecommuting schedule, she was fairly flexible, making it possible for her to pick up kids and take them where they needed to be. For the first time in months, I was able to truly relax.
During this time, my sister put me in touch with a physical therapist friend she'd gone to college with. I made an appointment to see her; what could it hurt except my pocketbook? I'd already tried almost everything under the sun. When I met Kerri, I instantly liked her. She was very matter-of-fact but didn't seem at all worried about whether she could help me. For the first time, I felt like maybe someone could truly guide me in finding my way out of sciatica hell.
I began going to Kerri twice a week, whether I wanted to or not. I'm not brilliant at being told what to do, especially when I know it's going to hurt. Sometimes physical therapy takes the whole "no pain, no gain" saying to a new level. Despite my lackadaisical attitude at first, she was wonderful. She explained to me that it was likely there wasn't anything irreversibly wrong with me, but that my sciatic nerve was probably pinched during the fall, and with my active lifestyle, I just kept re-irritating it. The inflammation was causing the surrounding tissues to press on the nerve, and so on it went. This was the first time anyone had mentioned chronic inflammation or hadn't tried to jam a handful of pain pills down my throat.
She started me out with exercises to strengthen the muscles throughout my body, but especially the ones that supported my lower back and legs. Some of them hurt --a lot. I found out that I had particularly weak abs -- not something any woman in her 40s wants to hear! However, after two weeks, I started to notice that my lower back and hip weren't hurting nearly as much. I was even starting to get a pretty cute butt. There was still the shooting pain down my right leg, but it wasn't constant and didn't start off with a dull, all-encompassing ache at my waist anymore.
When I wasn't doing my exercises, I was resting. Often. To the point that I felt like I might be the laziest woman on the planet. After more assessments, Kerri had determined that my problem was definitely stemming from inflammation -- not actual nerve damage or impingement.
To combat this, I spent a lot of time icing my rear and applying a pain relief cream called You Plus Reliefon my lower back, hip and leg.
This worked best after I'd soaked for a while in the tub -- the warmth brought the blood closer to my skin's surface and without the day's "grime" it seems like it would melt in and get right to work. Kerri had been seeing incredible results with it and its ability to reduce inflammation enough to promote healing. She found it worked beautifully as a natural pain reliever for arthritis in some patients, so wanted me to give it a whirl. Ironically, after all the meds, chiropractic and so on, this little tube proved to be the magic I'd been searching for over the last seven months.
Luckily, my sister was still willing to put up with my whining and make sure that everything I shouldn't do got done. She and Kerri started dragging me out on long walks. I could traverse from our house to the park and back -- a good 1.5 miles round-trip. It doesn't sound like much, but after being nearly bed-bound for months, this accomplishment made me feel like I could conquer the world.
My sister insisted I stay off my feet when I needed to and was a drill sergeant when it came to keeping up with my physical therapy. Her ability to whip my kids into shape in the mornings made me feel like an inadequate mother, but I wasn't going to complain!
I started using the You Plus Relief pain relief cream both after my morning shower and after my long soak in the tub at night. And every time I used it, I could feel the difference. I even convinced my husband to use it following a 50-mile ultra marathon he'd run. He said he felt like his quads recovered much more quickly than when he would use Icy+Hot -- he, too, had noticed that it seemed to actually work on the muscles, instead of just producing a jumble of sensations that created a topical sensory nightmare, masking the root of the problem.
I'd been using a brand-name sports cream that smelled awful and would leave my skin feeling raw and burned; I didn't notice any real benefits from the other creams, thinking back on it. I think perhaps the topical burn would create a distraction, but I didn't get the same deep tissue effects I'd noticed with the You+Relief. My body started to become strong and lithe again. I was getting myself back.
Almost a year later, I can happily say I am completely recovered from the case of sciatica that took over my life.
It gave me a great perspective on how those with chronic pain try to move through their daily struggles and just how much I've taken for granted. I honestly don't think I would have gotten to where I was without the help of my physical therapist and her steadfast belief in You+Relief.
Natural pain relief is possible. It just requires that you do your research and never give up on experiencing a life with less pain. You are worth it; you deserve to live pain-free.