My Chronic Pain Story
One morning, in the spring of 2003, I woke up as usual…
But very quickly I realized that something was terribly different.
When I began moving around, getting the day started, I felt a burning pain running down my left leg.
“What the heck!” I thought.
If you have ever experienced chronic pain, you will remember its onset- that mixture of confusion and terror as you come to grips with an awful new reality.
I was an avid basketball player, so I was used to nagging injuries like ankle sprains and jammed fingers.
But this was, as I discovered, an altogether different animal.
I had no idea what it was and thought ‘surely, this will go away in time.’
Over the next week I trying self-massaging the leg, applying heat wraps, and icing it- all of which were of no consequence.
The ineffective ‘icing-nerve-pain-away‘ strategy
Eventually I went to the doctor
I remember bending over from the hip for the physician- running through all the movements that triggered the pain.
I was somewhat relieved to have a diagnosis- at least now I would be able to figure out how to treat it.
What sciatica felt like
The pain was maddeningly variable and responded to different triggers. It was worse in my left leg, but enjoyed migrating between both legs.
Standing or walking for extended periods caused the left leg to experience a searing pain and eventually go numb. The base of the left foot would also become numb. Depending on how the pain was ‘feeling’ that day, with every step there would be a sharp tweak behind the knee. Daily tasks like visiting the college food court and waiting in line was an unbearable agony.
I would have to constantly shift my weight, which eventually threw my pelvis out of alignment, further aggravating the situation.
A visualization of my sciatic tormentor
Movement was understandably difficult and I began performing ‘walking-distance’ calculations.
At the time I was a college undergraduate.
The campus, unfortunately, was sprawling. So, walking to classes was an exceptional hardship.
Check out this campus map and you can just imagine how difficult navigating it was:
What made it worse was that the friends I had on campus were not very understanding.
As with many people who experience ‘invisible’ chronic pain, they just couldn’t relate to what I was going through. They would forget that it was agony for me to take long walks and couldn’t understand why I had to ‘budget’ my daily movement.
The psychological toll of chronic pain
The pain felt tremendously unfair, like I had been cursed. Sciatica was a cruel joke, an evil entity that enjoyed tormenting me with a constant, merciless aggravation.
I experienced feelings of hopelessness, anger, frustration, isolation and lowered self-esteem.
Because of my limited mobility my friends joked that I was like a senior-citizen. I found this especially galling because I had always prided myself on being physically fit.
They were nice people, but they just didn’t get it.
Something had to be done…
I had begun taking Naproxen (a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) and Fish Oil a couple weeks in. I also began a course of largely ineffective physical therapy out on Long Island soon after my diagnosis that Spring. The physical therapist ran me through a regimen of sciatica stretches that I dutifully performed on a yoga mat in my college dorm room, grimacing as I performed the piriformis stretch.
The Naproxen helped to reduce the pain around 30% and made it somewhat manageable. But I knew the health risks of its extended use meant that this could only be a temporary solution.
After insurance stopped covering the physical therapy treatments, I began taking private Pilates sessions. My Pilates teacher was excellent- but unfortunately for me, these early morning sessions could be brutally painful.
The ‘tree’ exercise was the bane of my existence.
The Pilates sessions, combined with my own daily mat-work exercises, significantly helped my posture and strengthened little-used muscles.
I even tried a vigorous acupressure massage conducted by a powerfully built Russian orthopedist. He dug his thumb into the sciatic nerve behind my knee- it must have been the most painful experience of my life.
Normally a stoic and reserved person, I cursed at the top of my lungs…but let him finish the session.
Magically, however, after this session the pain was gone!
…for one afternoon.
But what an afternoon!
I was able to run and walk again like a normal person!
I returned to the New York City basketball courts for one glorious afternoon:
But the grip of sciatica was stubborn– it would not release its hold over me.
Gradually, the pain returned full-force. By that evening, I was right back where I started. Perhaps if I had continued receiving these treatments I might have been able to discover a natural cure for my condition- but I could not bear the thought of undergoing any more of that torture.
I had been struggling with sciatica for 6 months or so at this point. I had run through all of the accepted, preliminary treatments.
Some days were worse than others.
On the worst days, I was unable to walk down the block without having to rest from the nerve pain gripping my body.
My family and I eventually decided that surgery was the best option.
It was advised that I receive a lumbar discectomy.
While apprehensive, I was excited to undergo the surgery. I was sick of the pain and frustrated by all of the ineffective treatments I had tried.
The surgery required an overnight stay in the hospital. I remember waking up from the surgery with tubes down my throat, feeling incredibly groggy.
As I regained consciousness, I remember tentatively flexing my legs and ankles, testing whether the pain had vanished. I remember that it felt different and there was still the apparition of pain in the leg- but it definitely was a different type of pain.
Plus I was on opoid painkillers post-surgery, so it was hard to tell exactly how my body had responded to the surgery until they were cleansed from my system.
After I was released, I remained in bed for two days or so.
Gradually the sciatic pain began dissipating. By the third day, I could say that the surgery was a success. I was thrilled, but felt terrified that it would suddenly return.
I was tentative with my movements for months afterwards, giving thanks every morning that I awoke without the awful reminder of my incapacity.
To this day, I recognize that many of my movements are still somewhat tentative- when I stand in place I notice that I still shift my weight, and often catch myself slouching to one side. This is a residual consequence of living with the terrible feedback of chronic pain- my body is still, to this day, reacting to a vanished pain response.
But I can’t complain- I feel lucky that my surgery was a success.
I eventually purchased a Pilates Stability Chair for myself secondhand from a closing Pilates studio.
It’s a great device- there are a million exercises you can do with it and it really accesses the lower back, enabling deep stretches of that tightly compacted area.
I have not resumed strenuous exercises like running or basketball- I’m apprehensive that it could potentially re-injure the area.
But, I do practice bodybuilding, albeit very carefully, and I love walking around my neighborhood in Brooklyn Heights.
Even 10 years later, I am still thankful that I have regained my ability to walk without pain. If you have ever suffered from chronic pain, you certainly can empathize with that feeling.
ChronicPainDisorders.com is a website that was founded by me, Ryan Nelson (firstname.lastname@example.org).
I am a a former sciatica suffer, industrial psychologist, and digital marketer who lives in Brooklyn, New York.
I manage a team of medical and health writers that contribute to the site.
Because of my experience dealing with sciatica, and my passion for writing and web development, I started this site as a chronic-pain resource.
I hope to strike a balance between practical advice and open-minded inquiry.
If you would like to contact me please click here to submit your question or comment. You can use that form to submit your own chronic pain story – reader submissions are always encouraged. Also, be sure to check out our ever expanding Resources page to check out our favorite chronic-pain relief products.