It began in January of this year. I remember walking in the grocery store parking lot and feeling pain similar to shin splints in both of my legs. At the time I didn’t give it much credence, it was probably the result of all the standing I recently had been doing at my part time job. I’ve felt this before, it will go away in a few days. A few days never came.
Then there was the occasional numbness in my feet. I initially felt it when I was sitting or laying down but never when I was walking. It wasn’t all that bad and it wasn’t constant so nothing to be concerned about. It did not go away and after a while I also started to feel it when I was walking. From there it transitioned into shooting pains up the back of my thighs, again intermittent and surely something that would work itself through over time. That was not to be.
After four months of experiencing these symptoms I decided to go to the doctor. It was thought the pains in my calfs were due to vericose veins, and upon consulting a vascular surgeon we determined that the calf pains could indeed be the result of them but the numbness and the shooting pains were entirely something else, perhaps sciatica. Let’s deal with the vein issue, note the results and determine the next steps from there. A quick hour procedure in the doctor’s office and eight weeks later no shin splint-type pains, but the numbness and shooting pains remained.
Next stop an x-ray and physical therapy. The x-ray showed some arthritis in the lower back but nothing overly significant for my age. The treatment – needling to relax the muscles in the lower back, massage and exercises to strengthen my core. A valiant effort with some temporary positive results but it became evident over time that PT was not the answer.
Back to my primary care physician who then orders an MRI to see if that will give us any useful information. Have you ever had an MRI? Up to this point I had not. All I knew was you could have a closed or an open one, and lucky for me that even in my ignorance I opted for the open one. It was the longest half hour of my life. Even with an open MRI you are put into a chamber where your nose is basically about a quarter of an inch from the top of the chamber with slightly more room (but not much) around the rest of your body. The nurse showed me how I could look to my left and back and see the room, the “open part” of the MRI but what good is that when you are encased in a tube. Definitely not the place for the claustrophobic (which I am). Before the procedure you’re asked if you want to listen to music while having the MRI. I said yes and opted for Classic Rock. Never again will the songs American Pie, Cats in the Cradle, These Are the Good Old Days, Horse With No Name and others evoke anything but memories of being encased in that tomb.
Most people complain about the banging noises the machine makes when creating the images. That did not bother me in the least. The thought of being in the tunnel, listening to music, not knowing if anyone was watching, wondering if they really would come and get me out, if I would have a panic attack, would anyone hear me and on and on… well, needless to say, it took all of my powers of concentration to stay calm. I knew that for the length of the procedure I could not open my eyes, if I did it would all be over. Since it was going to be a half hour long I coped by counting the songs thinking that if each were on average three minutes long after ten songs I would be out. Finally I heard a voice in my headphones. It was the nurse telling me I had only one more image to go. That was a comfort. The last image seemed like an eternity to complete and then when it was over it seemed like forever before I felt the gurney move backward to let me out. I almost panicked at that point but took some deep breaths and finally I felt it move and I was free. A friend of mine told me that she recently had a 3 1/2 hour MRI. They would have to shoot me first. I’m not sure I could do even a half hour one again.
The only good thing was the MRI pinpointed the problem. The MRI showed that I had a condition known as spinal stenosis. Without going into great detail, the lamina (bony portion) of my spine at the L 4/5 juncture was almost completely closed off compressing on the nerves and soft tissue that run through the spinal column causing the pain and numbness I was experiencing. Recognize that I am not a physician and am probably over-simplifying the explanation, but bottom line the bony part of my spine at that level which should appear to be open in the center, as seen in the picture above, was not. When the doctor reviewed the MRI with me, he told me that I must have a high tolerance for pain and could not believe that I wasn’t complaining of being excruciating pain. I guess I was lucky. The prognosis was that it could only get worse, eventually get to the point of unbearable pain and probably result in some loss of function in my feet and legs if not treated. He told me I already lost some strength in both of my big toes. The recommendation was surgery, a L 4/5 bilateral laminectomy. So, it’s not going to get better, obviously I’ve had symptoms and pain for a year, and it will get worse. A no brainer – ok, let’s do it!
So what does does any good sleuth do in this day and age when faced with a procedure that is foreign to them? Of course, do research on wikipedia, WebMD, Rate an MD – all that good stuff. The day after I agreed to surgery I called the doctor’s office to get the exact spelling of the procedure. I will never forget the nurse, who probably knew exactly what I was going to do, telling me to check out their website first to get an accurate picture of the procedure, it’s benefits and risks. I was a good girl and did that first.
The doctor made it sound like a snap, the least invasive spinal procedure they do. Basically a small incision is made in the back, an instrument with a microscope is inserted and the lamina is scraped away to create a more natural opening for the nerves and soft tissue. (click here to see a video of the procedure). Since both my right and left side were experiencing symptoms, both sides needed the procedure, a surgery that would last approximately 2 1/2 hours. Some of the other web sites I researched were a little more cautious about the severity of the procedure but not to the point that made me reverse my decision. What sealed the deal for me was going on the Rate an MD site and reading the reviews of my doctor. The rating scale was 1-5, one being lowest and five highest. My doctor only had 13 reviews but they were all 5’s. Understanding that people these days are more apt to write reviews when they are dissatisfied rather than satisfied I felt confident that I was in good hands.
The surgery was last Wednesday. I was kept overnight for observation due to the nausea I experienced from the anesthesia, but went home the next day. After that I was on pain meds for only one day, am now up and walking, and feeling nothing except some soreness in my lower back. The shooting pains in my legs are gone and the numbness in my feet has decreased significantly (that can take up to two years to completely go away). For the next 6-8 weeks I should not bend over, twist my body or carry any weight heavier than 10 pounds. After that, complete recovery is expected.
After a year of pain and treatment I am so glad to finally be on the mend. I am in awe of modern medicine, thankful to the doctors and nurses who take care of people who are sick or in pain and hope that research continues to create new, innovative and minimally invasive treatments to help people deal with the physical challenges they face in life. Thank you, thank you, thank you… Knowing how I feel today and my fear of having any type of spinal surgery, I cannot thank you enough.