In 1970, I was a normal kid, involved in everything and afraid of nothing. I had never experienced back pain in my life and couldn’t even spell sciatica! Bad back? A bad back was something old people had and complained about, not me. In other words, I was the typical fifteen or sixteen year old kid. It was at a wrestling match, before-hand actually, when my world changed forever. Prior to a wrestling match, as was always the case, our coach would crack our backs. Getting your back cracked was kind of a ritual and involved getting back to back with the coach, hooking arms, and then being hoisted upwards while hyperextending the spine. Yes, I can hear the groans from here, but it worked…and it was ritual. You see, wrestlers, like most athletes, are really big on habit, ritual, and tradition. I once knew a wrestler who wore the same socks, never washed, for an entire season. Of course, we stayed away from him after a while, particularly towards the end of the season. So, we had our backs cracked.
Ritual! Tradition! Habit! Superstition!
Well, the season progressed, I’d felt a twinge that night but nothing to get upset about, just a twinge, certainly no back pain or sciatica. Up until then, I had only lost once, in the ninth grade, to a human wrecking machine by the name of Scott Clifford. Scott had been wrestling since birth, or so it seemed, particularly on that day! But since then, never…not once. A funny thing happened on my way to sixteen, I started to lose, and lose big. After a while, I was hearing phrases like “flash in the pan” and ” glory boy,” and “it went to his head.” Kids and high school coaches, as we all know, can be very cruel, especially when the “king” is dethroned. And I was summarily dethroned and dismissed by the end of the season.
Anyway, I went on to track, I was never so happy to start running again in my life, all fifteen and a half years of it. Well, I had a horrible time! I went from holding school records to not being able to get around the track. Kids who had never come close to beating me were blowing by me. It was a terrible season. Halfway through, disgusted and completely disillusioned, I went to see the family doctor. I described my symptoms, minimizing and denying of course. I told him about losing in wrestling and then in track, I complained of about the pulled muscle in the back of my leg. I had no idea what sciatica was…but he knew. By that time, I did know what back pain was and, in a moment, I was going to be educated about my pulled muscle.
The Doc asked me if I had injured myself, felt anything pull in my back? The rest is history! A light went on, I told the doctor about the back cracking incident, told him about the pain, I came clean and admitted it all. What a relief! I had completely removed the back cracking from my consciousness, never giving it another thought, until that moment, but in an instant it was all clear. It was also clear to Dr. Rush and he immediately sent me to an orthopedic surgeon, the next day. I learned all about back pain, sciatica, and leaned new words like spondylolysis, spondylolisthesis, and spinal fusion. On June 12, 1971, I learned all about real back pain. I woke up in the recovery room at Fairview Hospital, Cleveland, Ohio…it wouldn’t be the last time.
Fast forward and it’s twenty-nine years later, the year 2000…Y2K! I am in a whole new world of back and sciatic nerve pain, sciatica, by now. In fact, I am on so much pain medication, have had so many back surgeries, many doctors wouldn’t even see me. The ones who would see me said things like arachnoiditis, chronic pain syndrome, failed back, and a whole array of terms meaning everything and nothing. By 2000, I had undergone 10 major surgeries on my spine, I was to suffer through 4 more. That’s right, fourteen major “procedures” on my lower thoracic, lumar, and sacral regions by the age of fifty.
Little did I know it at the time, and every doctor I saw missed it, I had advanced, chronic osteomyelitis. Osteomyelitis may present with no symptoms at all or may have signs and symptoms so hard to separate from other conditions that doctors miss the diagnosis entirely. Osteomyelitis of the back (vertebrae/spine) or hips (pelvis) may have few overt signs and symptoms, no back pain, and no sciatica. Osteomyelitis that occurs after surgery or a fracture or deep wound may present with swelling and pain but you may attribute that to the traumatic event, not an infection. And it was the infection, in 2000, probably there since 1994, that almost took my life. Had it not been for an amazing doctor at a noted Cleveland hospital, the other one, the one attached to the noted eastside university, the really famous hospital missed it too, I wouldn’t be writing this today.
So, five surgeries and nine years later, yes, that’s a total of fifteen, I am finally getting my life back. As far along as a year ago, it was still touch and go, major complications as a result of the osteomyelitis, combined with other health issues, almost did the job that we avoided back in 2000. Yes, that’s right! The math doesn’t work. That’s because I also crushed my shoulder in 2007, a consequence of weak bones due to the infection and other problems. Now, the only metal left in me is in my shoulder and that makes fifteen!
Now, should you have surgery number one? No one can answer that for you, that’s something you must face, and answer for, yourself. Back pain and sciatica can be terrible and there comes a time where anything will do, any solution seems OK…as long as they get rid of the pain. However, before I opened Pandora’s Box again, for the first time, I would do everything humanly possible, exhaust every option, before having back surgery. Don’t open Pandora’s Box if you can avoid it! You will never be the same and, of the half a million or so who undergo surgery every year, only 30-35% have a total and complete recovery, 20% never recover and are worse off. Not the kind of odds I’d go to Vegas with, if you know what I mean. Back pain and sciatica can be terrible, I’ve been there, this isn’t just a topic I drew out of a hat. My doctoral research was on the spine and sacroiliac (hip joint, the ilium meets the sacrum or hips to tail bone), so I know the situation, inside out you might say.
Back pain and sciatica? Yes, they are a reality after so many surgeries, they really can’t be avoided. Are they as bad as they were? No, absolutely not. A program of exercise, to regain muscle tone and lose weight; ice, with the use of an ice-compression brace, to reduce inflammation; sleeping with five pillows (yes, five!) or, when I need to, in a recliner fully reclined and a pillow under the knees, try it, it really works wonders on the nights when nothing else works; and finally, and a good pair of New Balance running shoes. Yes, New Balance and, if you must wear a harder shoe or boot, orthotics for cushioning. No, another kind of running shoe isn’t as good, I’ve tried them all over the years and New Balance, for the heel cushioning, are the absolute best. And no, you can’t get the relief or the cushioning from the insoles of Doctor S, it’s not the same! Am I “spamming” you? No! Go anywhere you want buy anything you wish. But if you want relief, these are the ultimate in bad back strategies, strategies developed over three decades, give or take, for dealing effectively, and not so effectively early on, with back pain and sciatica.