Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Hello Kitty is not a Cat and Other Deceptions

Years from now, I'll tell my children that I remember exactly where I was when I heard the startling news that Hello Kitty is not really a cat. Of course, I'll say I was reading on a G-rated website and not Dlisted, which is my new favorite thing in the entire world, other than Mom's new dog, Hello Puppy.

This picture is your reward for reading this long, boring post.

But, now that I know that Hello Kitty is not a cat, I'm wondering about Hello Puppy. Maybe he's not a dog at all, but really a perpetual 3rd grader named Puppy White who lives in a London suburb with his parents, George and Mary. I'm sure that Mom is just imagining him peeing on the rugs and chewing the furniture legs because he's really in London asking his mate for proper DI-rections to the loo and noshing on some black pudding.

In all seriousness, there is a brilliant lesson in the Hello Kitty story, which is that things are not always as they seem. For example, when I wear yoga pants and flip-flops you might think that I'd just practiced Bikram yoga and executed a flawless crow pose. The truth is likely that I've just been to physical therapy where I had needles inserted into my back. (Also, I could never do Bikram yoga after reading this article. This wasn't a big sacrifice as I never considered doing Bikram yoga prior to reading the article. Just like it's easy for me to not go to Hobby Lobby because Michaels is closer and I already know where to find everything.)

You may have been wondering what I've been up to for the last three months since I haven't been posting. Or not, that's fine. The truth is that while I posted pretty pictures on Instagram and Facebook of my vacation in Maine, at that point, I was unable to do much more typing than just a few hash-tagged lines because my fingers had gone completely numb. I was totally pulling a Hello Kitty - looking like one thing, but really being something totally different. While I try not to be one of those Facebook friends who just posts about my fabulous moments, I also don't feel comfortable spilling out all of my personal problems online. I mean, no one likes a Facebook bragger or humble-bragger, but the pity attention trolls aren't great either. Also, I've carefully cultivated on online persona who is funny and self-depricating, not one who complains about her aches and pains.

I'm writing now because I've gotten better (and am not looking for pity attention) and I want to make an online record of my experience just in case someone else has the same bizarro symptoms that I had. In May, I started waking in the middle of the night with my upper back and shoulder muscles in a crazy spasm. I guessed that it was stress-related and that it would go away after school ended. (Because obviously I'd be less stressed when I had to entertain the children 14 hours a day). By June the spasms were still happening and I noticed that when I woke up from a spasm my hands would be numb. Surely, I irrationally thought, this will go away on its own. You will be shocked to know that it did not. In fact, it got worse. One night when we were in Maine on vacation, I woke up and my arms were so numb that I quietly pulled out the iPad with my teeth and typed a Google search with my nose: 'What is wrong with me?' (Answer: Admitting you have a problem is the first step.) This turned out to be the best advice I'd ever received from Google because, indeed, I decided that I had to get some help. Aside: If you have numb hands and upper back spasms DO NOT Google these symptoms because you'll be convinced that you have any one of a variety of unpleasant diseases. 

Since my problem seemed to be muscular and we were on vacation, so going to a doctor would be tough, I booked a massage. When the masseuse finished my 90-minute massage she asked, "what happened to you?" in an awe-filed voice like maybe I'd just gotten back from a trip to Tibet where I'd been forced to sherpa for the Kardashian's new show "Khloe and Kim Take Everest." Sadly, all I could come up with was, "I have three kids."

When we got home, I booked another massage and made a doctor's appointment with my GP. I went to the doctor hoping that if I explained that stress was causing my back to seize, that he'd prescribe me some happy pills and I'd be on my way. Naturally, that didn't happen. He pulled out an anatomy book and pointed out a picture of a skinless human with the spinal column and nerves exposed and said that he thought I'd ruptured a disc and that it was resting on the nerves which was causing the numbness. "Would that cause the spasming?" I asked. He wavered for a second and then stuck to his guns. "Absolutely." He told me that I needed an MRI immediately because the nerves could be permanently damaged if the numbness persisted for too long. So, instead of getting some happy pills to make me less stressed, I left with the threat of permanent nerve damage hanging over me.

Naturally because time was of the essence, I had to wait a week for an MRI appointment.  In the meantime, I had another massage and even tried acupuncture, because why the hell not? I have no idea if acupuncture works, but I liked the acupuncturist because, in contrast to the medical doctor, he actually listened to me and gave me some neck and back exercises which made me feel like I was doing something other than waiting around to be bombarded with radiation. I had my MRI on a Friday afternoon and sprung for a $5.00 copy of my MRI pictures to take home. Christmas card pictures! I watched an instructional YouTube video on how to read an MRI several times until I was confident that I knew as much as a radiologist. I scrutinized my MRI pictures and was fairly confident that I did not have any ruptured discs in my neck or upper back.

I called the GP on Monday morning so that he could be on the lookout for the radiology report. By lunchtime the doctor called to tell me that he had looked at my MRI and that I had a ruptured disc. It was lower than he expected, but, he assured me that was certainly the cause of all of my symptoms. So much for my YouTube MRI tutorial. He gave me three options: He could refer me to a spinal surgeon, he could refer me to a spine doctor who specialized in alternative therapies, or he could refer me to a physical therapist. Since spinal surgery does not sound like fun, but a ruptured disc sounds like something you should see a specialist about, I went with option two.

Again, with time being of the essence, the first available appointment with the spine doctor was in almost two weeks. The day of my appointment with the spine doctor finally arrived and I was immediately impressed with the efficiency of the office. I gave the nurse my copy of the CD with the MRI images and she accessed the radiologist's report (something, I realized that my original doctor must not have had when he told me that I had a ruptured disc). When the spine doctor came into the exam room, the first thing he said to me, before even "hello" was, "why are you here?" I was a little taken aback, because he's a spine doctor, so it seemed obvious that I was there for my spine. "Um, my doctor told me that I have a ruptured disc in my spine, and..." He interrupted me, "your spine is completely healthy and stable. Why do you think there's something wrong?" I explained my symptoms while he ran me through a series of mobility tests. "You have a muscular issue," he scribbled on a pad. "Physical therapy. You having problems sleeping?" I nodded. "Here's a prescription for muscle relaxant." I was in and out of the exam room in less than seven minutes. We just got the bill, for an "extended examination." It was $410.00.

Even though the doctor clearly couldn't wait to get rid of me and my stable spine, I felt vindicated that I totally learned how to read an MRI better than my GP just by watching a YouTube video. Plus, getting the script for muscle relaxant cheered me up because it reminded me of the wedding scene in "Sixteen Candles:"

Speaking of muscle relaxants and other things that put you to sleep, doesn't Blanche Baker (the bride, above) look like drowsy singer Lana Del Rey?

My first visit to physical therapy was not helpful. The therapist had me lie on my back on a big foam roller and hold out my arms like I was signaling unsportsmanlike conduct or being crucified (which is the height of unsportsmanlike conduct.) Then I moved my arms into the "touchdown" position. He seemed to think that the problem was a combination of tight pec muscles (clearly from all the bench pressing I'm doing) and upper back muscles due to a combination of stress and my crappy posture. It turns out that you should sit up straight just like your mother told you. I am still not sure whether this diagnosis is correct, but it sounds more plausible than the disc theory. I do have a gift for finding new and creative ways for emotional stress to manifest in a physical manner.

When I went back the second week, I told him that I didn't feel any better. So, he asked how I was with needles. "Love them!" I said and showed him my track marks. Actually, I said I was okay with needles, it was the pain when they're stuck into me that I wasn't crazy about. He said that he wanted to try dry needling to release the tension in my muscles. In case you don't want to read the Wikipedia entry on dry needling, the down and dirty is that the therapist sticks a needle into the first layer of muscle in a tight spot and it spams for a while and then relaxes. Once the first layer is relaxed, the needle is pushed deeper and the process is repeated. It's called "dry" needling because while hypodermic needles are used, no medicine is actually injected. According to Wikipedia, this shouldn't hurt if done by a skilled therapist. Well, I guess mine got his training from the dry needling correspondence course because it hurt like hell. After he finished and I was a quivering mess, he put these pulsing electrode things on my back and draped a heating pad over my shoulders and left me for 20 minutes in the dark. I was so exhausted by the whole experience that I went to sleep. I woke up and was thrilled to see that I had a quarter-sized bruise in my upper chest where he tried to release the muscles in my pecs.

Because the whole thing was kind of horrible, I was reluctant to admit that it actually worked. I could actually sleep. My hands weren't numb and I didn't feel like I was carrying a cinderblock around between my shoulder blades. The next time I went, we went through the whole needling thing again, but this time I knew what to expect, so it was even worse.

Obviously, I must be on the road to recovery because I was able to type this ridiculously long discussion of my medical problems, which was probably exceedingly boring to 98% of readers. My apologies, but I'm not writing this for you anyway. I'm writing it for the 1.5% who have a weird illness or condition and bounce from doctor to doctor receiving conflicting diagnoses and dismissive treatment. Being sick sucks and trying to coordinate doctors appointments when you don't feel well is really difficult. Throw taking care of kids or a job in there and it's easy to see why people get discouraged and want to give up. I'm also writing this for the remaining .5% of people who actually might share my symptoms. My suggestions for those people are that you need the following: 1. If your back starts to spasm, don't be an idiot like I was. Get help right away. 2. Find a doctor who will give you a PT referral and a prescription for muscle relaxants. 2. Look for a really good massage therapist. Go as often as you can afford. 3. When you get to PT, don't let the therapist mess around with exercises. Ask for dry needling right away. Good luck. And sit up straight. Your mother and your back will thank you.

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