January 30, 2014
As I write this, I am almost fully recovered from a tremendously painful pinched nerve in my neck. I'm at about 95%. My left thumb is still numb, but the feeling in the top of my left hand has come back almost entirely. It's been since Dec. 18th, six weeks to the day.
I want to share my story and process of healing, because there is a dearth of first-hand accounts of healing this painful experience available. I know, I searched the internet for weeks trying to narrow down the confusing information not only from online but from the chiropractors, doctors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, and physical therapists I saw in person. It's very clear what to do for a broken finger, for instance, there aren't many differing opinions, but with a pinched nerve, contradictions abound. I was told to ice it, heat it, take hot baths at 105*, don't take baths, move it, immobilize it, rest it, exercise it, sleep with two pillows, don't sleep with a pillow, only sleep with a cervical pillow, sit on hard surfaces, sit on soft surfaces...the list of complete opposite advice goes on.
On top of that, no one quite knows what to call it: pinched nerve, compressed nerve, herniated disc, bulging disc, ruptured disc, torn disc, slipped disc, collapsed disc, disc protrusion, degenerative disc disease....the list of names I heard goes on.
This post is certainly not to replace medical advice. It's just my experience of what worked and didn't work, and what I wish I had done differently. I don't know if any of this matches up to conventional wisdom, it's just my opinion. (I've linked the things I purchased to where you can purchase them, as well.)
Backstory: I am in my late 40s, in good health, don't exercise and have never taken prescription meds. I was a gymnast until the age of 16, lots of crunching of the neck and flexing of the spine. I had an incident with my neck when I was 14. I woke up in the morning and stretched, heard a crack in my neck and couldn't move. My dad took me to an osteopath and the doctor adjusted me and I was healed. It was pretty miraculous.
When I was 23, I got rear ended in my car and had minor whiplash. I went to a chiropractor a few times and wore a brace. And that healed pretty quickly. I do (did!) sleep on my stomach most of my life, one of the worst things for your neck. I sit a lot during the day, hunched over a computer or talking to clients with, I'm sure, pretty poor posture. So perhaps all of that contributed over time.
In July 2013, I was walking in the mall with my husband and I felt a tingling in my left arm. I mentioned it to my him but we both shrugged it off. A few weeks later, we were in the mall again (I was getting my first pair of glasses, so we kept going back for check ups and fittings. Funny how my neck coincided with my eyes--it's an aging thing!) and the tingling started in my left arm. Why did I only feel it in the mall? I have no idea. Never felt it any other time.
A few months after that, I noticed my neck and shoulders were sore. I thought it'd go away by itself, but it didn't. I went to a chiropractor who didn't seem alarmed, didn't ask for X-rays, and adjusted me. I felt worse after. For the next few weeks my neck and shoulder bothered me on and off, but I didn't do anything about it. I had tried the chiropractor and it didn't help, and I wasn't in enough pain to go to a doctor, so I left it alone. By Thanksgiving, I was feeling a bit run down, as well.
I am a hypnotherapist and felt I needed to decompress from my work with clients, so I decided to take two weeks off at Christmas. My last client was Dec. 18th, and the next day, Dec. 19th, my husband and I were supposed to leave for a Christmas vacation in NYC. After that, the plan was to take 10 days off of work to "relax and refocus."
Dec. 16th, I met with a new doctor--nothing neck related--just for a physical for my insurance. My neck wasn't bothering me that much then. In fact, I forgot to mention it to him in our detailed health history. It wasn't until our meeting was over that I remembered and said, "Oh, I forgot to mention that my left arm has been tingling. I think it's related to a sore neck that I've had on and off for a few months." After talking, he told me that I should get my neck X-rayed and we would go from there. I had no intention of getting an X-ray.
The next night, Dec. 17th, I was very stressed about something, and I tossed and turned all night. Awful night's sleep. The following morning I woke up and told my husband I was in "excruciating pain." (At least the most pain I had felt up until that point. Little did I know, it was about to get way worse.) I decided that after work that day I would see the chiropractor downstairs from my office. I still didn't know if I should go to NYC the next day. The chiropractor adjusted me and said hopefully, "I think you'll be able to go on your trip tomorrow." I went home that night and it got worse. First BIG MISTAKE. I should not have gone to the chiropractor. (At least not at this point.) I should have realized that from the couple of months earlier when I went to the chiropractor and it exacerbated the injury.
Second BIG MISTAKE was heating my neck that night, which I was told to do by the chiropractor. I cancelled our trip (Thank God I didn't go!) and laid in bed with heat. Third BIG MISTAKE, I used a pillow that was supposed to support the neck. The next morning, I woke up and did not recognize myself. I didn't know my body was capable of doing what it did. My head was frozen stuck way forward, like a turtle. And my left shoulder was frozen stuck about three inches higher than my right shoulder. I couldn't believe it! I could not turn my head even a quarter of an inch. I was now in truly excruciating pain and had constant muscle spasms up and down my back and along my side. (For reference, I've had broken bones and they felt like minor scratches in comparison.)
I had been told to put heat on my neck, so I stood under the shower, thinking I could relax the muscles. It didn't help. I cried out in pain. My husband called the chiropractor and she said either I needed to go to the emergency room or if I could somehow manage to get myself to her, I needed to have an adjustment ASAP.
My husband and I were very scared, not sure what was happening. But I knew hospitals were out for me. So I laid down in the back seat of the car as he drove me back to the chiropractor. I wailed in pain the whole way. And here was my fourth BIG MISTAKE. I wish I had not gotten out of bed. I wish I had not gone anywhere. I wish I had iced my neck, stayed in bed and did not move.
But because we didn't know what was happening, we took the advice to get my neck adjusted. Bad move. By the way, the chiropractor completely disagrees. She kept saying, "This is an alignment issue. You need to come in every day to get it aligned and off the nerve." It made perfect sense logically, but with this level of pain, the best thing I believe now, is that I should have just rested, and not done anything at all to aggravate the muscles and the nerve. I believe that what was more important for me was to lay still and ice my neck to get the swelling down. I could barely walk at this point, and here I was bouncing around the back of a car to get to a chiropractor. Unbelievable, looking back on it. Any small movement caused immense pain.
The pain was now radiating into my left shoulder, through my left upper back and down my arm. It was that radiating pain that hurt the most. It felt like a 250 lb. man had beat my arm until it was black and blue, and then kept beating it some more. It was an unbearable deep soreness. I could only hold my arm in the air to find some small relief.
On the way home, I hit rockbottom desperation. I called my client who is a doctor and asked him for painkillers. (I had never taken a painkiller or any prescription drugs in my life. I rarely even take an aspirin.) This was the Thursday before Christmas and he was leaving his office for a Christmas party and then would be gone for vacation. I begged him to do it right now. He conceded and called in a prescription for painkillers (Vicodin 300mg), muscle relaxers (Cyclobenzaprine 5mg), anti-inflammatories (Diclofenac 100mg), and an antacid (Pepcid) because "anti-inflammatories are hard on the stomach." (I hadn't called my new doctor because I knew I would have to make an appointment to go see him and blah, blah, blah, protocol.)
I didn't really understand how this was going to correct the problem if it was an alignment issue as I had been told. So I asked him how it was going to fix itself, and he said, "With medication." I trust this man, he's a brilliant, highly regarded, sought after doctor. But I was confused. How can medication, if it was an alignment issue, heal or align my neck? The chiropractor said that these meds only mask the problem. Hmmm. I had no choice, I took the medication and actually relaxed for the first time. I also iced my neck and that helped. REST, MEDICATION, and ICE was what I had needed the whole time. First thing I DID RIGHT. If I had iced my neck the first night, skipped the chiropractor and the heat and the "neck pillow," I do not believe I would have woken up looking like Frankenstein's daughter. (Side note: Many people heal these injuries without chiropractors.)
I was still desperate for some type of help in healing this, so we called an acupuncturist the next day and made an appointment with her for Monday. It's hard to tell what worked and didn't. I believe I found slight relief in my left shoulder after that acupuncture session. I went back again a few days later and she put the electrical current needles in my shoulder. I found slight relief again. It should be noted that I was still in tremendous pain. Walking sent shockwaves through my spinal cord. The third time I visited her, the needle really hurt my shoulder. I asked her to take it out, and left her office with more pain than when I went in.
I gave it one more try, and the fourth time, she had to move the needles in both my hands near my thumbs because it was hurting so much. Afterward, I told her that those areas were really sore. She rubbed my hands and sent me home. Within an hour, my right hand swelled up. (Mind you, I couldn't use my left arm or hand because of the pain and weakness and numbness in my left hand, but now my right hand was in pain and swollen!) And the pain began to radiate up my right arm. I could no longer use that arm now either! I iced my hand to get the swelling down. It took four days.
The acupuncturist had suggested some herb infused neck patches. I was told to keep it on for 48 hours and I ripped it off as soon as I got home. I found it incredibly annoying. One thing I did like was a Chinese oil called Chan Yak Hing She Woo Lok Medicated Oil that she put on my neck--like the Chinese medicine equivalent to Icy Hot. It felt good, like it was doing something beneficial to my neck, relaxing the muscles or something. I continue to use this every day, plus I love the wintergreen oil smell.
For two weeks, except going to the acupuncturist a few times, I laid in bed with no pillow (any slight touch like my hair brushing up against my neck sent shivers of pain) but eventually I was able to roll up a soft t-shirt half way and put it under my neck, and all I did was stare at the ceiling. Luckily, my husband thought of a brilliant idea. A hand held projector!
He connected it to Netflix, and I watched The Office every evening into night. (Watch something funny!) That's our set up in the photo below. That projector was a lifesaver, or sanity-saver. I no longer went quite as stir crazy.
I am a newlywed, and I don't know what I would've done without my husband. He took care of me and our furry kids and the house. He did everything for me. He fed me, even holding a cup with a straw into my mouth in order for me to drink. I could not feed myself, as I couldn't sit up or move my neck. He made midnight runs if I needed something. I honestly feel so blessed and such gratitude to have him in my life. I don't know how anyone goes through this alone.
It's surprisingly super hard to lay flat all day and then go to sleep at night after doing nothing during the day, and then only sleep on your back. I couldn't roll over. Some nights felt like torture. The muscle relaxers and painkillers helped me go to sleep at night in the beginning, but by week two, I had gotten used to them and they didn't aid that process. The only side effect was from the Vicodin--constipation, which apparently is common. I started drinking prune juice, and that helped.
Eventually I ran out of my 10-day prescription and thought I no longer needed any meds. But without them, I backslid. I became overly ambitious about what I could do--like get out of bed--and ended up in more pain. I needed more muscle relaxers and anti-inflammatories, but my client was out of the country. So I went back to the new doctor and explained what happened two days after I saw him. He put me on a "better" muscle relaxer (Carisoprodol) and anti-inflammatory (Naproxen). The new muscle relaxers did not make me at all drowsy. I liked being drowsy enough to fall asleep. I felt the original one did a better job for me personally. And I wasn't sleeping well.
At some point, I decided to get those X-rays at the encouragement of my acupuncturist. Turns out two of the discs had sort of collapsed, and I was told there was disc degeneration in my neck, causing a bulging disc and pinched nerve. I was relieved that it wasn't super serious. At least no one I saw said I needed surgery. I almost didn't make it to the X-rays because I couldn't sit or stand for more than one minute in the waiting room without terrible pain. Somehow I managed to push myself through the X-rays, and I'm glad I did. It was helpful to know that it wasn't more serious. I honestly had been thinking that there was no way I would ever return to a normal life. But the body is miraculous. It can heal.
Within the first three or four days of being laid up, I had found some neck exercises on YouTube that I began doing each day. I could only barely do the easiest one, the first one, called retraction. But I did it religiously because I was so desperate. Looking back, I think that expedited the healing process.
Besides the oil, the only other helpful thing the acupuncturist did for me was mention a book called, "Treat Your Own Neck" (There's also Treat Your Own Back") by Robin MacKenzie, which contains neck exercises called the MacKenzie Method of exercises.
I the acupuncturist her that I was already doing some type of exercise each day, but I ordered the book anyway. The book was very informative--and the exercise I was already doing came from the book! I decided that I needed to see someone who specialized in these type of neck exercises. Luckily, living in Los Angeles, I looked online and found a man named Dr. Gary Jacob. When I had gone back to the acupuncturist for my fourth treatment, she said that I should see a man named Dr. Gary Jacob, who she knew personally--she had gone to him as a patient and had taken classes from him. I knew he was just the person to help me. And boy did he!
Dr. Gary Jacob is a chiropractor/acupuncturist (he lectures around the country to chiropractors and teaches acupuncture) but more importantly to me, he was the first chiropractor certified in the MacKenzie Method of exercises for patients with neck and back pain. I called him on New Years Eve, almost two weeks after the acute stage began and asked when I could see him. He suggested the next day. I said, "But I don't want you to work on New Year's Day." And he told me it didn't matter. Wow.
The next day, I put on my neck brace, laid down in the back seat, and we drove over to see him. Dr. Jacob was a god-send. He was informal in demeanor, making me feel so at ease immediately, but he was also very authoritative. He was accessible with a discreet office, no receptionist or assistant. (Apparently, he used to have a huge practice in Santa Monica with receptionists and a gym and massage therapists--the whole nine yards--but he taught so many patients to heal themselves that he had to downsize, because they didn't need to come back!) I knew instantly he was my Holy Grail. He suggested that I no longer have any chiropractic neck adjustments. I assured him I wasn't. He relayed a message to my acupuncturist, who he knew, to think more "cosmically" and treat me holistically rather than specifically. He did a bunch of tests on me--strength tests, rotating tests, etc. And he poked around the muscles in my neck, he even cracked my back. After the tests, he said to me, "You respond to movement." I started to cry of relief. I had been immobile for 2 weeks, wondering how I would ever possibly be normal again. And this was the best news I had heard! My body responded to movement! It wanted to move!
He laid me down and pushed his thumb up each side of my neck vertebrae, digging in deep, and afterward he asked me to turn my neck. Again, I cried--not of pain, but of joy. I could turn my neck more! I felt a release and ease of movement. He asked me how far I could walk without pain and I told him "around our small pool." Though even that was painful. He said, "Now I want you to walk fast for 3 minutes a day. Get your heart rate up." I said, "I can't do that. The pain would stop me." And he responded, "Work through the pain." I needed someone to tell me that I was going to be okay and give me permission to keep moving even if I felt I would collapse from pain. No one had told me that I would heal completely. No one told me that this nightmare would all go away. I don't believe Dr. Jacob would have told me to get up and exercise for three minutes even a couple of days before. But somehow, that day, I was ready to begin to move. It was, after all, New Year's Day.
Seeing him was divine timing. I needed to hear what he had to say at exactly that time in my healing process. I do believe Dr. Jacob would have told me to do exactly what I had been doing that week--rest, ice (I did 20 minutes about 5 times throughout the day) and stay on the medication. I was off the painkillers and he asked what anti-inflammatory I was still on and I told him Naproxin. He said, "That's a good one." So I kept taking it. Dr. Jacob also gave me a list of supplements to take: vitamin D, magnesium, and omega 3s. (I took them all.) And he told me to come back and see him if I needed. I only needed to see him one more time.
My husband and I walked out of his office and we both hugged each other and cried. We finally knew it was all going to be okay from here on out, for the first time. It was the best New Year's Day ever. I was beginning the new year on the right foot with hope and joy. I can't even begin to describe what I felt. "Elation" comes close.
Dr. Jacob had taught my husband some exercises, traction-type ones where I lay on the bed and he pulls my head away from my body to do on me that were very beneficial. No one suggested a traction table to me, but I do believe that would have helped after the acute pain. While in acute pain, I found only rest, ice, and medication gave relief. We did the exercises each day.
(It should be noted that I did try massage and body work, but I don't believe at that stage it helped much. Last weekend, however, I did get another massage, and I think it was beneficial but only because I am at the end of my healing process. I also did not try a steroid epidural shot because I felt that was a riskier approach.)
Another thing I had been doing on my own from day one was visualization. I did guided meditations for healing every day. I attribute much of the quickness of my recovery to that daily guided imagery. (I am a hypnotherapist, and I've created over 40 hypnosis MP3s. Please consider downloading the ones I have created for "Illness." They're only $8.96 for 6 of them!)
I tried EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) which I have been using for 13 years with wonderful results, but in this case, it didn't help.
There is a Workbook lesson in A Course in Miracles (my spiritual path, which is simply a book) that states: "All things are lessons God would have me learn." I believe that if we don't reflect on the lesson that the situation is trying to teach us, then it will just reappear in the same form or worse. I had nothing but time for those few weeks, so I reflected on the lesson I was to learn through this ordeal. For me, it came down these
1. Listening to my body and acting on first signs of "trouble."
2. Taking care of my body with exercise and stretching.
3. Most importantly: Keeping a healthy mind. Meaning, not allowing others (both in my personal life and in my professional life) to throw me off my peaceful center. I needed to change my perception about some things and let go of control. I needed a 180 in the way I was seeing a particular situation in my life, and I needed to let go of other peoples' problems. In line with keeping a healthy mind, I knew I needed a break for Christmas to refocus, but in hindsight I now see it went beyond need to desperation. I had no idea how badly I needed to lie flat on my back for two weeks and do nothing. The universe, my higher self, God, whatever you call that, did know. And made sure it happened.
4. Not take my health for granted. Not take the fact that I can get out of bed and walk for granted. Not take a beautiful day for granted. Not take my body for granted. Not take anything for granted.
I think I'm doing pretty good on all those accounts. I definitely see these last six weeks as a gift now. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but I learned so much and I grew immensely. (I wrote a blog post during this ordeal about my spiritual teacher dying at this same time.)
Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. Just when I was feeling back to almost normal, last week, I discovered that I developed an ulcer. I woke up in the middle of the night with a burning sensation and mild nausea. The nausea stayed with me into the morning accompanied by a lot of burping. I remember saying to my husband that day, "I just don't feel good." And I tried to take a nap, which I never do. I googled my symptoms and I realized it was an ulcer. I had every symptom on the list. I came to find out that Naproxin is notorious for causing ulcers. Why wouldn't my doctor tell me this? My client-doctor had given me an antacid to take 30 minutes before the anti-inflammatory, and I stayed on that for 10 days, which was the amount he prescribed. But my new doctor gave me 30 days with no warning or antacid. I had no idea it was eating a hole in my stomach lining! Everyone told me it was a better anti-inflammatory than the one I had been taking, and I didn't have any side effects from that one, so I assumed I was safe with this one. Wrong! I immediately went off all meds and have been healing the ulcer naturally--licorice root tablets, pure cranberry juice, pure aloe vera juice, probiotics, and enzymes. And it is working. As far as my stomach goes, it's healing, except for the occasional mild burning or very mild nausea.
I'm hoping that's it now! Nothing more after the ulcer.
It is my sincere wish that if you are suffering from the same thing that this information has been helpful to you. I want to give you hope that it will heal. You WILL get better. My advice is to listen to your own body. About two weeks ago I stopped icing my neck and began heating it. That "felt" like the right thing to do. All that confusing advice left me listening to myself more and more, even if it contradicted what professionals were telling me. It's your body. You do know what you need. In the acute stages, if it hurts to do something, don't do it. Give your body rest. And eat healthfully. I am a vegan, and I ate only healthy foods--tons of raw veggies each day in a sandwich, stayed away from gluten and sugar (inflammatories), ate an apple a day, because my body craved it, and drank green juices and plenty of water. I did lose five pounds, but it wasn't unhealthy for me. I feel like I shed a layer that needed to be released. Food is medicine, and it no doubt attributed to a speedier recovery.
I feel like I have a new lease on life. I'm walking regularly. I'm eating more slowly and consciously. I no longer sleep on my stomach. I sit straighter and don't slouch as much. Oh, I got this awesome wedge set up from Relax The Back for reading, being on my computer, or watching TV in bed, and love it! I am currently using a memory foam pillow from Bed Bath and Beyond. It's their store brand of Tempur-Pedic. I don't know if they still carry it. It's equivalent to this Tempur-Pedic pillow and gives the right amount of neck support for side sleeping. This Therapedic pillow from Bed Bath and Beyond is very similar, as well.
And one of the best things that came out of this is that I purchased an Intex inflatable hot tub that I'm obsessed with. I use it EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. My husband was very skeptical, but it's been a lifesaver for my neck and shoulders and general de-stressing. Believe it or not, it works great! I honestly can't say enough good things about it. Oh, and I saw that Ellen DeGeneres gave it as a gift on her tv show to every member of her audience for Christmas! That's a pretty good endorsement! Check it out here.
If you can't purchase an inflatable hot tub, once you've healed, consider maintaining good health by taking weekly warm baths with epsom salts.
All in all, I've created new healthier routines and behaviors for my body, and I'm thinking healthier thoughts, as well, by releasing what isn't mine to hold onto.
Life is good.
Here's to health!
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Feb. 17, 2015
I couldn't be more thrilled with the 5,000 hits this post has received, and from all over the world! Please know that you are not alone. Every day this post gets at least 50 hits from people suffering from this neck ordeal, just like you. I've been asked how I am now doing, so I thought I would give a quick update.
I am fully recovered. I never thought it would happen, but miracles do occur! I have absolutely no residual pain or discomfort. I am back to all my usual activities, except sleeping on my stomach. I am forever a back/side sleeper, unfortunately.
I still put the Chinese oil on my neck EVERY night. I've done that for over a year now. Rubbing it in gives me a moment to massage my neck muscles, and I think that has helped. And I still sit in my inflatable hot tub every day! I am more cautious now, in that I don't crank my neck to talk to people, or sit or lie down to read or watch TV with my neck forward. I also won't do anything that jerks my neck, like ride roller coasters. (Not that I rode roller coasters often before.) I will occasionally do a McKenzie neck exercise, just to counter any weird tweaking of my neck I may have done naturally throughout the day.
I hope that gives you hope! Be patient with yourself, you will heal.