Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Pain Cave

The last thing I want to do on this blog is to complain about personal health issues. However, my recent painful episode, its origins and my experience with the medical system may be of some use to some (especially older) readers who want to keep pursuing an active lifestyle until the hearse pulls up.
Here is a quick synopsis of what I think was the underlying cause:
- January fall on an ice sheet, flat on my back, while getting ready for a snowshoe trip at Paradise, WA
- No pain or other symptoms for couple of weeks
- Two following months, stiffness in the neck, unable to look over my shoulder while bike commuting
- Skiing, dropping 5-10 feet through gates into chutes and bowls, jumping moguls, landing in deep powder, fast descending on a snow bike - all causing dull pain in the neck
- Ignoring all these warning signs
- April - flying on business, sitting on a plane with a strong pain in the right arm
- From that point, the pain in neck, shoulder, arm does not go away, gets stronger, to point 11 on scale of 10

There are two kinds of pain, the first "normal" pain is when we cut, bruise, burn ourselves. The second, nerve pain is the pain we experience during a root canal or tooth drilling without enough anesthesia. It is also a pain caused by pinched nerves in the vertebrae. It is dull, radiating, sends electric-like jolts through the paths of the nerve, tingles occasionally, but most importantly, never, ever goes away. After a few days, it drives you crazy, keeps you awake at night, does not let you concentrate on anything.

OK, so what does one do in such a painful situation? Here is again a quick summary of my actions and encounters with the standards of medical care as well as the non-traditional approaches. First, I tried to make appointments with a GP and an orthopedist, being new to the area, this was going to take several days (a week or so). Second, I ran to a physiotherapy place across the street from my work. These guys gladly took care of me, after three sessions I gained a lot of mobility in my neck, but the pain did not go away a bit. Some of the exercises seemed to help temporarily, but still no sleep.
Then - the real MDs: Dr. 1 prescribes pain medication which makes the pain go away for 30 minutes and a neck X-ray which shows no problem with the bones (besides a slight age related wear of the vertebrae). Dr. 2 says the pain medication was wrong, prescribes a super strong NSAID (the one which can kill you by stomach bleeding), a painkiller that is used to treat epilepsy and an MRI. The painkiller causes me to lose coordination, so I move like a drunk, but it knocks me out for 2 hours at night, so I sleep a little. After 2 of these pills, no chance of driving a car for at least a day. A week goes by.
Dr. 3, a chiropractic with a doctoral degree: immediately identifies a C7-T1 dislocated vertebra, agrees with Drs 1 and 2 on a possibly herniated C5 disc and gets to work. Gentle adjustments, no work around the T1 until she sees the MRI, massage, hot / cold, ultrasound. For the rest of the day and most of the following night I am pain free and the hope of running and biking again returns.

I am sure all this will resolve soon and I will be able to function again. But this experience results in two realizations: first, who knew that the fifties will be so miserable after the best physical condition of my life during my 40-ies? Who the hell wrote this program? Second: from now on, I will listen to my body and be gentle(r) to it. Yoga and chiropractic will likely be part of the routine. After all, I still want to ride 100 miles when I'm 75.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Those missed rides

I boarded the plane from Seattle to San Jose in excruciating pain. A pinched neck nerve was shooting jolts of electricity down my shoulder and handing the boarding pass to the attendant was an effort accompanied by seeing stars. I sat next to a pretty young lady with her leg in a plastic cast. She commented on me wearing Hokas and as it turned out, she was a competitive triathlete, who broke her leg (a second time) during an important race. The girl was devastated and I tried to cheer her up, despite the fact that turning in my seat just slightly to talk to her caused me pain of previously unknown intensity. When we landed in San Jose, she said "I guess today was my lucky day that I met you" and waited for her crotches and her husband to help her off the plane.

The third seat in our row was empty. We paid for it but Marketa had to stay in California that week. Which brings me to the subject of missed bike rides and runs. During the summer of 2013, Marketa collected data for her thesis, while I tried to use every sunny or at least dry weekend day to bike the Northwestern mountains. Then came the fall, she moved to the Bay Area for school and the weather went downhill from there. Almost every weekend from September to the end of November, each of us sat at our respective computers, headphones on, Skype running, working on the diploma thesis. Coding and decoding surveys, running data through SPSS, searching for references, endless discussions and proof-readings of all parts of the manuscript, going crazy about the APA editorial style and so on and so on. Working on such complex document remotely took at least thrice as long as if it was done face to face. Many weekends it rained and I did not regret getting out, but often I longed for an hour run even in the rain. And many times I sent her edits and rushed outside for a quick jog, sometimes even a longer run, just to burn midnight oil later. Second reader approvals, thesis advisor edits, more changes, last minute screw ups with formatting, then the final draft and binding. The result is here: last week, my wife received an award for her thesis.

She was among about fifteen award recipients out of 577 graduates. Two days later, she walked up the stage to receive her Master of Science degree in Clinical psychology.

A four year long test of endurance was suddenly over, they played Alma Mater in the finish chute, and instead of a medal, she received her diploma (or rather an empty tube pretending to be a diploma).
We were both very happy and glad this event was over, she is now well trained in yet another scientific discipline (on top of a doctorate in biochemistry) and both of us have learned a ton. Yes, we have missed miles and miles of trails and roads, but we would never trade the gains of psycho-education for all these miles and potential calories burned.

Now is the time to put the herniated disks in their proper places and hopefully look forward to new trips, trails and destinations.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

K. H.

Since our first encounter with Mt. Rainier in the fall of 2012, my wife has nicknamed the big mountain Kuneticka Hora. I really don't know why, a hill of that name is located in Bohemia, it is about 1000 feet high and has a medieval castle on its top. But the name stuck.
On my recent trip to Seattle, which was probably going to be the last one for a while, I had a chance to enjoy nice, yet distant, views of the majestic mountain. 

Beautiful pictures of KH are likely to be found in all tourist brochures and calendars, but in reality, it is actually quite rare to see it, due to mostly cloudy weather of the region. Even when it is not raining in Seattle, KH may be difficult to see if there is haze or clouds surround the volcano that tends to create its own weather. I had only one afternoon free in Seattle and any serious physical activity was out of question due to my severe spinal blockage with resulting skeleto-muscular pain. I set out to "run" our old standard loop around Magnolia, which is about 9 miles and uses some beautiful trails of the Discovery Park.

It was a sunny, bright, clear 75 degree day and spring was in overdrive. Fresh green leaves and grass, lilacs, tulips and tons of other plans and trees blooming. This place can really be quite gorgeous under the right circumstances. I guess it is not meant for me to enjoy Seattle, even now, when I do not have to worry about my future here, my jog turned out to be a very painful experience. I ran for couple of hundreds meters until my neck, shoulder and arm hurt so much I could not stand it, then walked until I could not stand walking, repeated. 

Inside the Discovery Park, I found spots with nice views of KH I did not notice on any of my many runs here in the past. Small discoveries in familiar places. 

On Magnolia Beach, I finally turned my back to the mountain and hoped to complete the second half of the loop without peeing myself from the pain. I did, eventually (finish, not pee myself), about two and half hours after starting. 
This loop has become a symbol of slow and painful for both Marketa and me. Till next time, KH.