Back pain is an annoying bugger that affects many people at some point in their life - popping up occasionally like an 'unexpected item in the bagging area'. For some, it morphs into a longstanding problem, like chewing gum on seats. It creeps up on you unannounced and unexplained and is ruddy hard to get rid of. Sometimes it's the most excruciating pain you've ever had - even worse than being dumped aged 11 at the school disco (hurts when you stand up, hurts when you sit down, hurts when you go home lying sobbing on your bed). In 13 unlucky years of being at the mercy of this unwelcome visitor, I thought I'd share some of the insights I've gained from having a bloomin' awful bad back...
1. It's not just for old people.
My (rubbish) back story started aged 31 despite having been fit running, riding, gymming, yoga-ing and kick boxing for years. I went to Australia on a trip of a lifetime in November 2002, and when I got home, I felt something had become painfully trapped round the top of my hip bone, causing me to limp. I ignored the discomfort in my spine too and put it down to being sat on a plane for 24 hours. That was a prolapsed disc trapping my sciatic nerve, but I didn't know that then. I blamed Emirates Airline's excellent entertainment and the fact I didn't get off my arse during the flight home. Oooh the general knowledge quiz where you play other passengers is goooood...
2. It can take years to get your problem properly diagnosed.
Back pain tends to be dismissed - by doctors, friends, employers (not my current ones obv), family and lovers. After first going to the docs at the end of 2002 and being told it was 'just sciatica', it took until 2009 and lots of agony to be diagnosed with two seriously prolapsed discs and osteoarthritis to the point of 'crumbling' in my lower vertebrae. Before then, I wasted so much money on osteopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists and more who were never going do jack to fix my shit spine, but were all very happy to take my money. The osteo who just stuck a load of Elastoplasts on my back as a 'cure' in particular, I am giving YOU my death stare.
3. Demand an MRI.
Whatever the problem is, you won't get it fixed or know what you can do to feel better until you have been diagnosed properly. X-Rays won't cut it and I am now an expert at MRI scans (they're not nice though, particularly if you are slightly claustrophobic like I am). Relaxation techniques help and music is great if offered - though avoid any Eighties compilations as Wham!'s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go makes you want to laugh TOO HARD when 'der der der JITTERBUG' is piped into your ears as they launch you into the tube and you're supposed to stay stock still. Also, seated MRIs, where you sit upright in a machine and you hover in the air make you feel like Dr Who villain Davros. Which is huge fun.
4. People will step over you when you pass out and throw up on public transport because of the pain.
At my worst in 2008-9, then from 2012 to, er, now, this can happen. It's REALLY embarrassing, especially if you are ie reading Dear Deirdre in The Sun when it does and the double page spread falls round your unconscious ankles. If people can't see there's something wrong with you, they tend to think you are pissed or hungover, or both. Or else just drop an empty plastic bag next to you to throw up in. A wonderful treat when you come round which doesn't make you feel like an alcoholic tramp AT ALL.
5. Using public transport is HELL anyway.
Most people with back pain can't alert the general public that they are suffering. It's an invisible affliction, even when you're doubled over and gasping in the midst of a spasm. However, I have a walking stick (my disc rubbish has left me partially paralysed in my left leg). Still, most people ignore it. Of those who don't, eight out of 10 people who offer their seat to me on the bus, train or Tube are women. *Fistbump* Thank you, sisters! Guess you blokes are too busy manspreading.
6. Everyone has a back pain story.
It's hilarious how everyone has a tale to tell and feels compelled to share it with you unasked EVERY DAY, usually in a bid to trump your sad situation. It's like that Monty Python sketch. "Oooh, I know how you feel, I had a slight twinge the other day picking up my dead cat. IN THE POOR HOUSE" etc. Sometimes, people up the ante. Cue the guy in the ticket office at my local train station the other day, asking why I was walking with a stick then pulling up his shirt and flashing me his spinal corset.
7. Having to use a stick is a pain in the proverbial, though obv not as bad as the actual pain.
My favourite thing is when people rush or push past me, trip over my stick THEN STARE AT ME ENRAGED AS IF IT IS MY FAULT. I hope your day fails.
8. Somehow, inappropriate comments are deemed fair game.
I've had people I've dated, asking (as a first question after the topic has come up) in a panicked manner: "But you can still have sex, right?!" Yes, I can, but seeing as that is the first thing you thought to ask, NOT WITH YOU.
9. You have more of a relationship with drugs than most.
Tramadol is my constant and best friend. Oramorph is my lover after surgery (I've had four lots in the past year, two of them major), Nortriptyline a bit of a one-night-stand, ditto ketamine, Diclofenac the annoying ex-boyfriend that you still have to have some kind of relationship with, and Co-codamol is a former mate who is no friend of mine anymore and can do one. Paracetamol? Get lost.
10. Violent arse massage is not just a dream band name.
Oh, physio. How I love to hate you. I have had every permutation of physiotherapy known to man, including dry needling (it's a vile as it sounds, I think it started in Guantanamo Bay), acupuncture, myotherapy (the violent arse massage of note), hydrotherapy and good old physical exercise of the kind to target the muscles to combat your bad back and in my case, withered leg. Hydro is embarrassing geriatric aquaerobics and I can't tell you how much I hate doing it while lane Nazis pound up and down the pool and deliberately splash me as clearly I am 'just not trying'. Come the glorious revolution and the swimcap sorts are going down the biggest water slide know to man, straight into hell.
11. The next neurosurgeon or consultant who says 'nerves are funny things!' with a gummy smile is also going to hell.
I get that nerves take a long time to grow back - a milimeter a day appara. I get that my left sciatic nerve suffered a 'major insult' (medical term that really makes me LOL) when my sequestrated disc squashed it last May and that's why it's a bit pants. I get that's why I only have 30% feeling, use and function in my rubbish left leg. I get that you don't really know if I will be partially paralysed for life or not or whether I will ever be rid of back pain. But please, quit the jokes. When a nerve wins the Edinburgh Comedy Award or gets its own Channel Four show, then you're allowed (but I will still kill you).
12. It could be worse.
At my lowest points of My Back Hell, I have always reminded myself that at least I can still walk (well, hobble). It could have been catastrophic, as the first op stopped me from becoming permanently incontinent and losing any sexy feelings 'down there' (I have the beginnings of this little beauty). I might have lost a lot (I can't ride horses or run anymore, two of my great loves) but I'm not in a wheelchair. And there are painkillers. I don't have cancer and I still have my life, unlike my dear friend Nick who just died from that absolute fucker of a disease. And for that, I celebrate. I regularly grit my teeth, throw away my stick and dance wonkily in the face of back pain. It makes me feel better (even if people laugh and I feel broken the next day) and by chuff, it's worth it. And if you have back pain, I suggest you do the same.
For medical advice about back pain, as believe it or not, I'm not officially an expert, click here.