Degenerative Disc Disease ... it's a pain in the neck ...

If like me, you refer to degenerative disc disease as ''DDD'', I'm guessing you're already in agony and Googling your pain is what led you to this post. If that's the case, read on.

Unfortunately, DDD is a condition I've become far too familiar with over these last few weeks.

So let me start by saying 2 things:

  1. I know you may have recently, for the first time in your life, wished you could just die and end the pain.
  2. There is a hope.

Those voices tell you you'll be an invalid, incapacitated, useless. Shut them out. They're wrong.

If you're well enough to be typing and sitting at a computer right now, chances are you're over the worst of it. 

Because in the throes of agony, there is no sitting, no typing, no driving, no reading, no talking, no anything. There is no room in your life for anything other than pacing, lying down and dealing with the voices in your head telling you this is your forever future.

If, like me, the degeneration is in your neck, you may find your head is twisted down and to the left or the right, making you appear slightly ''Hunchback of Notre-Dame''-ish. You can't turn your head, and you may have lost feeling and/or movement in one or both arm(s) or hand(s). Pain is radiating from your neck, across your back, down your arm ... if someone were to ask you where the pain starts and ends, you probably couldn't answer with certainty. You're probably wondering if total paralysis is the natural progression.

Sitting is agonising, so you are likely pacing, pacing, pacing, pacing.

You may seek relief by lying down on the cool, hard floor, staring at the ceiling while your family stares down at you, helpless to help. Or you may be lying there alone, tears streaming silently down the side of your face, plop - plop - plopping rhythmically onto the floor, wondering how you'll ever manage to get up on your own.

And while you lie there, on the floor, staring at the ceiling, you're likely thinking ''how did it come to this?'' If, like me, you were clocking 10,000 steps a day, doing Pilates twice a week, always making a conscious effort to take the stairs and trying to fit physical activity in wherever you could, you're probably wondering why you ever flipping bothered.

You may be sick with worry about not being able to go to work because you can't turn your head without pivoting your entire body, can't drive, can't even hold your coffee cup without dropping it, can't wash your hair without someone's help, and can't really hold down a proper conversation because the opioids, muscle relaxants, and NSAID's meant to be relieving your pain are actually only making you loopy.  

It can get better. I promise. 

But there are a few things that can help you along.

1. First and foremost, don't ignore the signs; you need to see a doctor as soon as possible and get a proper diagnosis and care.

In my case, I woke up with what I thought was a torticollis (wry neck). I'd had it before, and it usually lasted a few days. I had no reason to think this time would be any different. But we were on day 2 of a 4-day house hunting trip overseas and I simply did NOT have time for this. Smilin' Vic convinced me to go to the doctor's, where I was diagnosed with torticollis and given Ibuprofen, Tylenol and a cervical collar. And off we went house hunting.

Rather than easing off, the pain and stiffness got progressively worse as the day wore on, and I writhed in agony through the night. On the second morning Smilin' Vic carted me off to the Alpine clinic again, where the doctor expressed grave concern for my liver (given that I'd popped my pills like candy to no avail), and a certainty that my neck rigidity and Spurling's test were indicative of a compressed disc. She suggested I get an MRI as soon as I got home.

That night was the worst. It was Smilin' Vic's birthday, so I made every effort possible to mask the pain. We got dressed, I applied my mascara with my left hand (because the right had stopped working properly by then), and we went off to enjoy a proper birthday meal, which is really hard when you can't actually sit without crying out in pain. 

I got up from the table about 20 times throughout the evening to go to the ladies room or just to pace outside. By the time dessert had been served I was at my wit's end. 

We went back to our hotel room, and I don't think I slept a single second. I paced the room, I stood with my back pressed flat against the wall, I lay on the floor. And then I said something I had never, ever, ever thought I would say in my lifetime: ''I wish I could just die.'' 

Until that moment, I'd never even thought to think such a thing, and tonight I'm so ashamed to even write it. But the fact of the matter is, the pain was THAT bad.

It was worse than anything I've ever experienced in my life, and it would simply not let go. I don't have the words to describe the intense, burning, throbbing ache that tore down my right side that night; I'm not exaggerating when I say I being quartered and drawn would have been the chosen option had I been given the choice. 

2. Resort to short-term self-medication if you must ...

At 4:00 that morning, Smilin' Vic poured me a bath and eased my twisted body into the steaming water. For a few minutes I felt relief. His biggest concern at that point was how to get me off the mountain and back home. He knew the worst was yet to come, with a 1-hour bus ride, followed by a 2-hour train ride, a wait at the airport, a 6-hour flight home and a 30-minute cab ride back to the house. I was having trouble sitting for 5 minutes - how would I ever manage 10+ hours sitting on public transportation?

So he did what any good husband would do. He bought a bottle of wine for the train and proceeded to get me slightly (read: 'very') toasted. I have to admit I felt great there for a while (at least I think I did ... it's all a little very fuzzy), and didn't experience much pain at all until about 2 hours before the descent into Doha. (I'm not condoning combining opioids and wine, but desperate times call for desperate measures!)

I didn't sleep again that night, and the very next morning he brought me to the hospital, where an MRI confirmed degenerative disc disease and a herniation of discs C-5, C-6, C-7. I have to admit I teared up. From hero to zero in an instant. Really hard to digest - how the flip could this be happening to me? Four days ago I was a healthy, active, functioning human being and now I was being told I had a potentially debilitating lifelong condition???? 

3. Accept the diagnosis and put on your big girl panties ...

The pity hormones kicked in for just an instant, but I swallowed them back as quick as I could. I had my diagnosis, now I needed to figure out how to deal with it.

The orthopedic surgeon reassured me: in 90% of cases a herniated disc will resolve on its own with conservative treatment (medication, rest, walking, physiotherapy, ...). He didn't recommend physiotherapy immediately as he felt the herniation was still far too acute; he thought waiting for the pressure to ease on the spine and nerve was the better option. He sent me home for 9 days of rest, encouraging walking and gentle exercise (think squeezing a sponge ball, squeezing your shoulders back, addressing your posture, etc.), no computer, no texting, no reading, nothing that would cause me to incline my head forward whatsoever.

He did warn me that if there was no progress in 6 weeks, we would have to consider surgery. I pushed that thought to the very back of my mind. I wasn't willing to accept that option as an option.

4. Keep moving.

So I went home and paced, and lay down, and paced, and lay down, and paced.

Eventually, about 6 days in, I braved a short 1 km walk outside. I wore the cervical collar, out of concern I would step into a Doha pothole and jar my neck. I waited until sunset so people wouldn't see me in this sorry state.

I walked really slowwwwwwwly. But I walked. And the next day I walked a bit more. And the next, even more.

After a few days of walking I started feeling the tightness loosen. I could manage a few hours of sleep without waking. I had let myself feel hope again.

5. Listen to your body and REST.

I started feeling better and better, stronger and stronger. The day after meeting with the surgeon, I'd begun logging my medication intake and my pain levels as they fluctuated. I could see those levels decreasing daily, not in a straight line, but steadily.

And on the 9th day I decided I could work from home. So I sat down at the computer and belted out a few emails to work.

That night, I barely slept an hour. I woke up in agony, very nearly right back where I'd begun. The numbness and radicular (radiating) pain that had started to gradually ease were back full force. And it was back to hospital and the orthopaedic surgeon, who told me I wouldn't be back to work anytime soon if I didn't stay away from the computer. 

Again he encouraged me: he told me to keep on tracking my pain levels and to measure my progress not day by day but week by week. He sent me home to rest for another week.

6. Put yourself and your health first

If, like me, you are a wife, a mom, an employee, it's likely you put several (many, most, all ...) needs before your own. On a daily basis you get breakfast ready, make sure the house is in order, put on your bestest professional persona ... you put everything you've got out there. 

Beyond the physical, you put your heart and soul into everything you do. And if what needs to get done doesn't get done, you let that failure rest squarely on your shoulders. 

That failure weighs a ton.

That failure takes both a mental and a physical toll.

When DDD struck, I had to let go of that failure if I wanted to get better. I had to make a very conscious decision to let my husband do the driving and the washing and my daughter do the cooking and the cleaning. Most importantly, I had to step away from the computer and let work and the office carry on without me. 

Surprisingly (to me, not to anyone else), life carried on just fine without me at the reigns. Even when I fell asleep before my daughter and wasn't around to kiss her goodnight, she survived and thrived. Go figure.

I was able to pace at leisure, pop pain pills and nap at 10:00 AM without a care in the world ... and everyone survived! 

This taught me an amazing life lesson: the only person I'm indispensable to is me. 

I need to worry about ''me''.

7. Measure your progress week by week, not day by day ...

You'll have good days and bad days.

It's taken me two weeks to finish this post, as the pain and the numbness in my neck and right arm/hand ebbs and flows.

Some days I feel like the old me; on those days I etch a silly sketch for my blog.

Some days I feel broken. On those days I stare at the screen, afraid to type because I I know the negativity pouring out of me will soil the page.

But week by week I feel myself growing stronger. And I make the good days count, and I don't let the bad days get me down or break me. I jot down a few words, and I hope for the best. And I know that eventually a few words will grow into many words, will grow into the tale spewn before you. 

And I'll be able to look back onto that accumulation of words and see how far I've come from just a few short weeks ago.

Let your mind be your brawn.

When you're lying in bed thinking you'll be an invalid forever, tell yourself you WON'T. Tell yourself this is fleeting. You'll be well again. 

8. Track your progress.

Track your pain levels on a scale of 1 to 10, and do so several times a day. There's great reassurance in seeing a pain level of 2 when last week all you were recording was sevens and nines.

Track your medication intake. You'll be happy to see it go down. Aim for zero meds (they don't erase the pain, they just mask it ... they don't make you physically better).

Track your sleep. Sleep is a great healer. Jot down what time you go to bed, what time you get up, how long you nap for.

Track your activity levels. Being able to walk 30 minutes straight when last week it was hard to walk for five ... THAT's progress!

9. Work on your posture.

I am now the proud owner of a McKenzie lumbar roll as well as a cervical roll. I'm not advertising, I'm simply stating. Best investments EVER. I feel immediate relief on my neck as soon as I use either one.

I've read that for every inch you lean your head forward you add 10 lbs of weight and pressure to your spine. Straighten up that back if you're not willing to carry that extra weight around anymore.

10. Stay positive. 

Don't let a bad day get you down. 

Don't let the pain take over your life.

If you can't control something in your day, let it go.

Download a meditation app, listen to a favourite podcast, and don't let the little things get you down. Tell yourself you can handle anything. You are strong. You can let go.

You've got this.

You win.

There are better days ahead. 

Never doubt it.