At 48, Fred has been living with back pain for 15 years. He is married and has a nineteen-year-old stepdaughter and an eight-year-old son. His back problems began in 1986 as a result of a job-related accident; a piece of heavy equipment fell on him. Over the years, he has herniated the same disc four painful times and has had two surgeries and two fusions.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
I started having severe leg and back pain a few days after the accident. I was having a lot of difficulty just trying to get out of bed in the morning, not to mention walking or bending over. Not being able to bend over was a serious problem for a flooring mechanic.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
I was first sent to a chiropractor for treatment. He was able to alleviate a lot of my leg pain, but I still was not well enough to return to work. The chiropractor diagnosed me with a bulging disc in my lower back that was impinging on my nerves. He referred me to orthopedic doctors who began to treat me for a muscle strain.
The orthopedic doctors continued to treat me for the muscle strain even after they found out that I had a herniated disc. I was told that most of the pain was in my head and that I shouldn't be having the amount of trouble that I was having. Since then I have had seven doctors over the past 15 years, and four surgeries performed by three different doctors.
What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?
My first reaction was that although I had hurt my back, I would recover in no time at all. I usually heal very fast, but with this situation, I did not.
My long-term reaction to the problem has definitely changed. It has been a very frustrating process, both personally and professionally, and there is no real end in sight. I've returned to school twice for different professions, but have had a lot of difficulty finding and keeping work. And although I've had four surgeries, the back problems continue. For the past three years, I've been told that I would probably be in pain, on narcotic medication, and unable to work for the rest of my life.
All this has made it hard to stay positive, although I do try. I recently applied for financial aid to return to school, and am waiting for their decision.
How do you manage back pain?
I am on major medications for pain, as well as medications for anxiety and depression caused by the chronic pain. I do a lot of stretching exercises to keep the muscle spasms to a minimum. I also go to the YMCA to use the whirlpool, steam room, and swimming pool to get whatever exercise I can.
Have you made any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to your back pain?
Yes, I have had to make many changes in my life since being injured. I no longer try to do things that involve a lot of physical activity. I'm also not able to work on my vehicles or fix things that are broken around the house, as this causes a lot of pain. My appetite has decreased, since I don't get enough exercise to be very hungry most days. Luckily, I am fortunate that I never had a weight problem; I know that weight gain becomes a problem for many people with back pain.
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
I see a therapist each month to talk, and get refills for my prescription medication. I am lucky that I have a very good psychiatrist who has been very understanding of me, and the physical problems that I have.
I also belong to a support group on the Internet, which has been very good. It is a big help to be able to talk with others who are going through the same type of situations. It is very hard to find people around you that really understand the pain that you are having, or all the mental and emotional issues that come along with it. I also ask God for strength to help me get through the really bad days.
Does back pain have any impact on your family?
This condition has affected my family in many ways. When I first got hurt, I was 33 years old, married, had just bought my first house, and was getting my life together. I was making pretty good money and financially comfortable. But after I was unable to return to work, my wife left me. I went through my first bout with major depression, and was put on a lot of medication. The side effects were so bad that I gradually stopped the drugs, and decided I would just deal with everything on my own.
Later, I fell in love with a new woman, and we lived together for many years before we decided to marry. We had a son together, and he has been a godsend to me. He is the one that I think about when I am seriously depressed.
After 15 years of dealing with this, I have a lot of negative emotions and anger that sometimes spill out to everyone around me. This makes it very hard on my relationship with my wife and family. I realize now that when I felt I was losing control over my life, I tightened my grip on my family; this seemed to be the only place I felt I still had control. This caused my family to retreat from me, which made it hard to keep my relationships on a positive level.
What advice would you give to anyone living with back pain?
Be very careful in choosing a doctor. Personally, I will only work with doctors who can put my pictures and test results up in front of my face and explain everything in a way that I can understand. But, be aware that there will probably be many questions that you will never find an answer to.
While trying to return to work, be aware of how a prospective employer will look at your situation. My experience has been that employers are leery of hiring people with major medical problems, because they are afraid of missed work due to pain and medical appointments. They're also concerned about liability if you become injured again on the job.
Work very hard post-operatively on regaining your strength and mobility. After having surgery many of your muscles will be very damaged, and it will take a lot of work to get those muscles back into shape. The more surgeries you have, the more scar tissue and calcium deposits you will build up inside your body. This can cause major pain in itself.
Lastly, try not to take your anger and control issues out on your family or those around you. Remember that anyone who has not been through this cannot possibly understand what you are going through. Even your family cannot understand it most of the time.
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.