As promised, here is my second installment on "Pain, from a Physical Therapist's Perspective." This is a stand-alone blog entry, but it may make more sense to you if you read my previous post on my journey with pain.
As I write this today, I am two weeks and one day post-op from a cervical fusion surgery because the conservative measures that my physiatrist had laid out for me were unfortunately not the ticket to my recovery. The surgery involved making a cut on the front right side of my neck, moving my trachea (windpipe) and esophagus off to the side, taking out the disc material between my 6th and 7th cervical (neck) vertebrae, replacing the disc with a spacer, and screwing a connecting plate to said vertebrae. The surgery went well, and at about the 12th week after surgery there should be enough stability and new bone growth at that spacer that my two vertebrae will be fused into one functional unit.
Aside from the fact that the surgery required stretching an important nerve that goes to my vocal cords, thus damaging it (presumably temporarily) and leaving me hoarse, everything else has gone exceptionally well. I have no pain in my forearm, armpit, upper arm, shoulder blade, or back. No pain. No pain. No pain.
I am back to work caring for patients again, and I could not be happier about it. I have to say, however, that coming out of the pandemic, sounding like I do, I have gotten a number of funny looks from my patients. I can just imagine what they must be thinking. After all, I DO sound as if I have a nasty case of something contagious. Or I sound like a muppet. A high-pitched, squeaky one. Maybe Beaker. Yes, I sound like Beaker.
In light of all that, I would like to do a pivot and simply offer some reflections of what got me through the experience of being in constant pain for three months:
1. My family. Enough cannot be said about how important a support system is. Having my husband and daughters around. Having them forgive me when I did not want to do anything after I got home from work. Having them love me when I was not at my best - that is as big a deal as a deal can get. I am grateful for them, and I am truly sad when my patients tell me that they don't have someone in their corner.
2. Deep Breaths. When you take a deep cleansing breath, in through your nose, and a long slow exhale out of gently pursed lips, you do something special and needed: you access your body's autonomic nervous system. And the part of that nervous system you really benefit from in this case is the parasympathetic nervous system. When you do breath work correctly, you will experience a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure, and you will feel a general sense of calming. This is a lifelong skill that will benefit me (and you) for the rest of my (your) life. It helps one cope in the moment, whether it be in response to psychological stress or physical pain.
3. Medications. I mentioned my medications in my last blog, and I mention them again today because they are vitally important, not just in the realm of pain, but in prolonging LIFE generally, be it to manage a chronic health condition or acute disease. In my case of pain, I was taking medication to help mitigate the nerve pain I was experiencing. It didn't cure my problem, but it helped me get through my days, and my nights. And speaking of nights, see #4.
4. Sleep. Your body does most of its healing and repair work while you sleep at night. So, if you do not sleep, you don't heal well. Any of my patients who have fibromyalgia and depression know this very well; when they do not sleep well, invariably the next day will be tough. Sleep is crucial to a well-functioning body, and good quality sleep cannot be overstated.
5. Movement. Despite the fact that I felt horrible, I kept up with my Yoga and stretching (with exception of the exercises that made me feel worse, because that's a thing). Movement, aka therapeutic exercise, aka restorative exercise, keeps the rest of your body functioning as close to normal as possible, while you deal with an injury or painful body part.
As a physical therapist, I have a big bias towards that last one: movement. Movement is an incredibly powerful tool that you have independent access to every day. You are meant to move. You are meant to stretch. And use your muscles. Furthermore, movement is FREE. Just taking a 10-minute walk daily will have long-lasting effects on your mind and body for years.
One final thought. If you find yourself wondering if you could benefit from something I mentioned today, talk to somebody about it. If you don't have a family member to bounce your concerns to, then try a friend or your doctor. Now is the perfect time to begin working on the rest of your life.
Michelle Landsverk is a Doctor of Physical Therapy at PT Center for Women, 3232 Ballard Road, Appleton, WI 54911. To make an appointment with Michelle call or text 920.729.2982.
PT Center for Women is one of the only physical therapy centers in Wisconsin that specializes in pelvic pain and pelvic muscle dysfunction, offering women of all ages comprehensive evaluation and treatment for their physical therapy needs.