No, no, that’s not me in that picture. I’m tanner. Plus, my spine is a lot curvier. Which, when it comes to spines, is not desirable.
As a kid, I had bad posture. “Stand up straight!” still rings in my ears, and if anyone says it to me today, they’re likely to get a punch to the throat. When I was 12, I was examined by my pediatrician. He asked me to leave the room and then told my mom I had 6 months to live. Needless to say, he didn’t really know what he was talking about. The second doctor, an orthopedist, diagnosed me with idiopathic (“We don’t know what causes it!”) scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and slapped me into a Milwaukee back brace (scroll down to view this modern-day torture device) for four hellish years in an attempt to keep the curvature from getting worse. It worked, and had I remained 16 years old forever, I might still be in pretty good shape.
But I stubbornly got older. And with age, the curvature typically worsens. If it gets bad enough, it can interfere with breathing and lead to arthritis of the spine. Muscles are stretched on one side and cramped on the other. When your spine is out of whack, everything’s out of whack.
My current orthopedist measures my curvature to determine the Cobb angle, shown in the above picture. The two numbers designate the original curve and the compensatory curve that results in the spine’s effort to keep the body upright. The lady in the illustration has a 40 over 25 curve; mine is 50 over 35.
At 50°, doctors start to talk about spinal fusion surgery. Scary, but back surgery has come a long way since I was diagosed. At that time, spinal surgery meant a full body cast and a year on your back. My dad had scoliosis (it can be hereditary), and they took a freakin’ BONE out of his LEG and jammed it into his SPINE. These days, they screw some metal rods and pins into the vertebrae and basically yank the spine into relative straightness. No cast or brace. Full recovery in about 6 months. Most people don’t end up with a completely straight spine, but depending on age and severity, most can expect a 40% to 70% improvement.
The possibility of surgery is still waaaay on the backburner for me. But I’ve been thinking about it more and more lately, because, quite simply, my back is killing me. It hurts when I sleep on my side. It hurts when I exercise but also when I don’t. I can’t sit or stand for long periods of time. It wakes me up at night and keeps me from falling asleep. Wait, let me check . . . yes, it hurts right now!
But there are other options, right? Yup, and I’ve tried them all: chiropractic adjustments, stretching, acupuncture, healing touch, meditation, yoga, creative visualization, massage, ice, heat, OTC pain relievers, UTC pain relievers, and Gus therapy.
Once I understood that surgery wasn’t quite as big a deal as I’d thought, my back started bothering me a lot more. Funny. I think this is because I’d always considered surgery to be out of the question, so I’d have to deal with this—CHEERFULLY—for the rest of my life. But now that I know that there is a possible alternative, I’m finding it harder to deal with the pain.
I’m also finding it harder to deal with having to give up things I love, like beading, because it hurts to sit upright for too long. I was trying to teach myself how to play the fiddle, but now it hurts my neck too much. I no longer take cardio kickboxing classes, because I’d have to factor in 20-minute intervals with ice packs for the rest of the day. And now I’m faced with giving up Zumba, the funnest workout in the world that makes me happier than just about anything. In that hour of aerobic dancing, I am triumphing over my condition, kicking my spine’s ass. There is such joy and a sense of empowerment in the feeling that my body can do these things. But then the muscles cool down and the pain settles in. Is it worth it? For now, it is.
Should I start seriously considering surgery?
Reasons to have surgery
- My spine will be straighter
- I will hopefully have a lot less pain and fewer (no?) headaches
- I will hopefully be more flexible
- I can do the kinds of exercise I love
- The money I save on massage therapy can go toward a second home in the Keys
- I can kick my Vicodin habit
- I’ll get morphine!
- Kickass scar
Reasons to avoid surgery
- It’s surgery! Avoid at all costs!
- I may have the same amount of pain and different (worse?) headaches
- I may be less flexible
- Exercise is supposed to be painful . . . right?
- I won’t be able to justify the cost of a massage anymore
- Vicodin is useful for other kinds of pain
- I probably shouldn’t be given morphine
- Giant scar
I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, pass the Vicodin. I should be dancin’ right now.
If you want to learn about scoliosis:
- Scoliosis 101
- Scoliogirl! Scoliogirl’s straightforward account of her spinal fusion surgery is reason enough to vote no. She woke up from surgery with a paralyzed leg. Luckily, after a second surgery, she’s doing better. But not great.
- Diary of a Milwaukee Brace Wearer This is a heartbreaking diary entry of a young girl getting fitted for a Milwaukee brace. No, your life is not over!