I Need A New Stim
by Victor M. Gonzalez
(Note to Michael Rawdon and any other neos who might be reading: This is a mercifully short example of a staple of fannish essay-writing -- the whiny explication of personal problems.)
The worst thing about growing older is the decay of my body. While most of us lose the feeling of youthful invulnerability by our mid-20s, it's still a little depressing to realize that just getting out of bed might be painful before we're 35.
Or at least it is to me.
A minor problem with my upper back had bothered me for years: a slight pain in a nerve alongside my spine. But it wasn't a big deal, and I ignored it.
But apparently that pain -- probably caused by a slight tendon tear years ago -- was lying in wait, slowly allowing the other muscles around it to degenerate. In the end, it only took a couple of innocuous actions to make it poke its head up and force moans from my lips.
The final insult came in December, during our post-Christmas snowstorm, while I was putting chains on my car so I could get to work. The pain started in my upper back and radiated down my left arm and up my neck. It was debilitating; even a few minutes at a computer terminal made me cringe with agony, and various over-the-counter pain pills relieved it only a little.
I was forced to go to a doctor, who referred me to a physical therapist. She has been putting me through an exercise regimen three days a week. I've also been taking codeine, anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants.
In short, a nerve and blood vessel coming from between my third and fourth cervical vertebrae are being crushed by muscles swollen through overcompensation for the torn tendon. The only solution is to improve the health of the muscles and tendons so that the torn one can heal and relive the pressure.
Perhaps the most interesting treatment has been the "TENS unit," a small battery-powered device that hooks onto my belt and delivers a small, constant jolt to my back via two sets of electrodes. In the world of physical therapy this is called "stim," short for "electrical stimulation." Larger stim units are used with ice to help temporarily reduce pain and swelling.
The biggest problem with the stim box is getting the electrodes placed properly. They have to be in just the right spots to help the muscles that are really causing the problem; otherwise all I feeling is a tingling on top of the pain.
But there is another factor, that of having to be hooked up to this battery-driven device in order to get through the day. It's better than codeine (which makes me horribly constipated), but I'd hate to have to explain the wires tucked into my pants to someone I was sleeping with for the first time. It's also a hassle to put on each day.
This injury has forced me to take two weeks off from work. This is cool in one way: I got a new laptop for my birthday, and I've had plenty of time to get it loaded up and running just the way I like it.
But I'm starting to get frightened. I have to start work again on Monday, and I still feel a lot of pain when I sit at a computer in the traditional posture. I'm afraid of the pain I'm going to have to suffer through to get my work done.
In the end through, I hope I'll have learned a couple of things: one, to not ignore little troubles, lest they get worse, and two, to keep my upper body in better shape.
My physical therapist said something when she was first evaluating me that has stuck: "This is not a matter of cure, but of management."
So pass me the lumbar pillow and the exercise chart.
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