A story about my neck pain.
I woke up last Tuesday like any other day; walked into my son’s room, and laid on the floor mattress with him for some snuggles since it was still a little too early to be up for the day. Suddenly, I felt the all too familiar neck twinge starting to tighten up. It thought to myself: “shit. not this again.”
As I tried to lift my head to turn over and get up, I heard a CRACK! And with that came shooting, strong, spreading pain. All across my neck, into my shoulders and between my shoulder blades. “oh no. I can’t get up.”
I asked my son to go wake up daddy. Mummy can’t get up. “Will I be able to go to work this morning?” I wondered. “I’ve got a patient coming in from out of town. I really don’t want to have to stay home.” I worried about how I would drive myself to work. Actually, I didn’t even know if I would be able to get up from the floor. I could barely pick my head up off the pillow without having a surge of pain that paralyzed me and warned me not to move. “Deep breaths. Try to relax.” I told myself.
I was familiar with this type of neck pain. For some people, it’s their low back, or their “bad knee”. For me, my neck seems to be the spot that will freak out every once in a while.
The first time it happened was about 12 years ago. I was just biking along, hit a bumpy patch and my neck suddenly seized up. It was a wonder I was able to ride the rest of way home and I remember it being such a struggle to lock up my bike. It got worse. I called a chiropractor who was able to squeeze me in for a last minute appointment but since I was in tears and could barely lay down on his table for him to assess me, he looked at me and said: “Wow. That’s pretty bad, hey. I think you should go to emergency.”
Hearing him say that freaked me out. It worried me that he didn’t know what was going on or how to help me. But, since I was about to leave for Australia for a year, and it was the night of my going away party, which I didn’t want to miss, I decided to take some muscle relaxants and went out with my friends. I got a massage and a few days later, my pain started to ease off and I was able to move again.
The second time my neck seized up, I was in the shower, washing my hair, and felt that familiar, worrisome pain creeping up my neck. A twinge of pain, and my neck was kinked again. I knew in that moment, once again, that I would be doomed for the next few days. I decided that it was best to cancel teaching my bootcamp class that evening and took the next day off work as I sat at home with a heat pack and a rolled towel around my neck, trying to treat myself with any technique I could think of (side note: treating your own neck doesn’t work, it’s impossible to stay relaxed enough for anything to happen). I was in my 3rd year of osteopathic college and was nervous and worried about flying to Toronto in a couple of days for my next course, which, ironically enough, was on the cervical spine (neck).
At school that week, I sat out from having techniques practiced on me since my neck was still feeling very vulnerable, but I received two osteopathic treatments, which helped somewhat. Eventually, maybe a week or so later, my neck went back to normal.
This has happened again, a third time, when my son was a baby, and neither of us were sleeping much at night. I was in awkward positions all night long, woken up every 45 minutes (no exaggeration!), breastfeeding in uncomfortable positions, desperate for sleep, beyond exhausted, and frustrated that even once my baby finally fell back asleep, and that even though I was so tiered, I could not fall back asleep! With my neck feeling stuck with horrible pain, I was worried about how I would be able to carry my son, and to get through the things I needed to do that day: walk the dog, keep the house clean, and make dinner, etc. I worried and stressed over it, which did not help my neck to feel any better.
Fast forward back to this week. I have learned a few things about pain since the last time my neck spazzed out. I have learned that pain does not always mean that there is physical damage, and that there are many other factors that can impact our experience of pain.
When I look back at all of these incidents, it is clear that there had not been any physical trauma, even though I worried that something had to be wrong in my spine since it was so painful. But really, riding a bike, washing my hair, and holding a baby are all things that I have done millions of times before feeling pain during those triggering incidents. I know that I am strong enough to be able to do those things, and that they likely did not contribute to any physical damage.
There was, however, one thing that all of these events had in common: STRESS.
Now, I’m not saying that all pain is due to stress. But I thought about whether it might have been a contributing factor in the context of my neck pain history. The first time my neck seized up, I was biking around town running errands and getting things ready to leave for Australia for a year. On a big trip, on my own, away from my family and friends, to a new country, for a whole year. As excited as I was about the new adventure, I think it’s fair to say that there was a significant amount of stress involved. My nervous system was pretty agitated from the excitement, worry, and the stress of getting ready for a big trip.
The second time, my neck spasm probably had nothing to do with washing my hair. There was actually something pretty stressful happening at that time in my life at that time. My beloved kitty was very sick, and we didn’t know how to help him, but we knew that he was probably not going to make it. The weekend my neck seized up, we were contemplating taking him to the vet for him to be put down. It was an extremely heart-wrenching time, and I knew that I might not see him again after my trip to Toronto for school. It was a pretty stressful situation, and very emotional for me.
The third time, I believe the lack of sleep and the stress from having a non-sleeping baby likely contributed to my neck spazzing out again, and worrying about how I would take care of him with a neck that was painful and feeling stuck makes a lot of sense to me now as to why it got worse.
So this time around, instead of following my thoughts down that road of “will I be able to work? How will I drive? How long will it last this time?” I thought to myself “I’ve had this happen before. What is going on in my life that may be contributing to my neck pain this time?” Instead of freaking out like I have in the past, I got up slowly (yes, with pain, but less worry as I knew that nothing could have been damaged over night, even though it felt like it!) and took some deep breaths and tried to stay relaxed. I recognized that there has been some stress building up for me and that I need to manage that by taking more time to myself and to practice better, more regular self care. I walked around the house swinging my arms to relax my shoulders and did not try to force any movement in my neck. I made coffee, slowly. I decided that it would get better and that I would be fine to got to work. I asked for help and my husband drove our son to daycare and dropped me off at work so that I wouldn’t have to struggle with getting him into his car seat or worry about shoulder checking.
At the clinic that day, although I was aware of my neck feeling restricted, I wasn’t bothered by the pain, because I kept reassuring myself that it was temporary and I think I was distracted enough while paying attention to my patients and making sure that I gave them my full attention and good treatments.
I also booked an appointment with one of the chiropractors at the clinic (one of the perks of having a chiro right next to my office! Thanks Gavin!). Being able to talk to him about my pain, and feeling cared for while receiving a nice treatment made me feel safe and provided some positive input to my nervous system.
Today, four days later, my neck is still sore, but I’m not suffering. I know that it will get better, and that my body was telling me that it’s time to deal with my stress in healthier ways. I’ve gone to the beach to relax and to take in the ocean air and have been spending more time outside. I have been paying attention to my breath, and avoiding worrisome thoughts as best as I can. I have been mediating before bed every night this week, and I’m feeling much better.
Pain can be tricky. And it is not always a sign of physical damage. I know first hand how stress, lack of sleep, and not prioritizing self-care can add up. I like Greg Lehman’s example of the overflowing cup. We can all handle a certain amount of “stuff” in our lives. But at some point, that cup can overflow. When it does, our body may sense that there is danger, and our nervous system can become very sensitive and protective. That protective response is sometimes manifested by our muscles tightening up, and an output of pain.
By calming down, seeking help from a good practitioner, and recognizing what is in our cup, we can change our pain experience. And although the pain may not go away immediately, we can still find enjoyment in our day and suffer less.