Lumbar Liquidators, or How Back Pain Is Not Something to Mess With

IF YOU WANT to get an idea of what it feels like for a whale to get harpooned, I suggest you herniate a disc in your lower back so severely that an anesthesiologist has to insert a needle into your spine and inject a dose of steroids in hopes of reducing the inflammation. Twice in the last month I’ve undergone such a procedure, and in each case my mind flashed immediately to Melville.

Last June I was painting the powder room in our house. The ceiling is low enough that I didn’t need a ladder to reach it, so long as I extended myself to allow the roller to get up there. It was a bit awkward but hardly undoable. At one point I turned, and right away noticed a small hitch in my back. It was not a sudden movement, and what I felt didn’t even hurt, so I didn’t give it much mind. But as the day went on, it started to get uncomfortable, and at about 3 the next morning I awoke in agonizing pain and unable to get out of bed.

I went to the doctor, who prescribed a course or oral steroids, which mitigated the symptoms somewhat but not fully. Still hurting, I returned to him in the fall, and he sent me to a physical therapist. That took the edge off enough that I didn’t go back for any follow-up, even though my back still ached a bit.

Over Martin Luther King Day weekend, my nephew recruited me to participate in an experiment he was conducting for his 6th grade science class. He was investigating whether energy drinks improve athletic performance. To do this, he gave me and other participants about 6 ounces of water to drink. Then we were to run as fast as we could for 75 yards while he timed us. After that, we returned to the starting line, rested a few minutes, drank 6 ounces of Gatorade, and then sprinted another 75 yards.

I don’t know about the results of his experiment, but I discovered that running all-out for 150 yards on a balky back is something stupid enough to land me in a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Within an hour my lower back was hurting as it never had. Back to the doctor I went, who sent me to a rehab physician in an orthopedic practice. An X-ray turned up nothing, but a follow-up MRI showed a significant herniation of the L5/S1 disc. (Yes, it feels kinda cool to be able to use such precise terms.) Compounding matters, the escaped disc was now touching on a nerve, sending crippling pain down my left leg. The only thing that allowed me to sleep at night was Percocet at bedtime. After a second course of oral steroids proved useless, my new doctor said it was time for the needle.

I stripped to my waist and put on one of those always dignified hospital gowns, then marched into an operating room and lay face-down on the table. Not wanting the side effects of anesthesia, I opted for a local, which involved a bearable pinch and some uncomfortable burning. Then came the big needle.

Having it inserted between two of my vertebrae, adjacent to my spinal column, was what I imagine it might be like to be electrocuted. My entire body was in pain all at once, and my left leg felt as if the muscles were being flayed from the bones. Each time the surgeon pressed the plunger on the needle, dispensing medicine, the sciatic nerve in my leg pulsed with new pain.

Ahab surely had lanced me with his best shot.

The good news is that neither procedure lasted longer than 10 minutes, and the second was of shorter duration than the first. That initial injection relieved about 60 or 70 percent of the pain in my leg, I would estimate, so I’m optimistic that yesterday’s will help me out even more. I have a new course of physical therapy to do, and on Friday I go back to my rehab doc. Here’s hoping this whale is back swimming before too long. | DL

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