Doctors tell you not to “chase the pain” when you have certain kinds of injuries. By this they mean if you don’t take something to combat the pain before it pancakes you, it’ll do a hit and run, never to be caught. But even catching it doesn’t always help because pain, like an investigative reporter, can be both persistent and totally unwilling to reveal its sources.
For example, when your back hurts, you might suspect a back problem. This is logical but, with all due respect, incredibly naive. Pain is way sneakier than that. For all you know, it’s just using your back to mask a problem with your pancreas. (Don’t believe me? Read this.) Because “sneaky” doesn’t sound super technical, the medical profession came up with a more elegant term for this nefarious behavior: referred pain. Charming, don’t you think? “Referred pain” makes it sound like your body parts are a bunch of conscientious professionals who have more volume than they can handle but will gladly set you up with a practice that’s taking on new business. My body kindly gave me a referral this past Sunday.
One day earlier, I had run a 5k in Great Falls, Maryland, with a few people from my boot camp group. In the days leading up to the race, I’d felt a nagging twinge in my in the space between my right hamstring and my glute – the “glam-string,” as I like to call it. My glam-string has bothered me on occasion but never been grounds to place myself on Injured Reserve, so I plowed ahead. I felt the twinge during the race on Saturday, but I hardly noticed because the scenery –rocks, river and trees emerging slowly from a morning mist dissipating under the warmth of the sun — commanded my attention.
The next day my glam-string was okay but my calf, a muscle that’s never caused me a minute of trouble, went on strike. I suspect it was a referral but didn’t have time to investigate because I was chasing pain in a different location: my neck. That’s not new pain, but it’s been dormant since the spring of 2011, when I went to an orthopedist. I had a bunch of tests done, got a monster shot, and experienced near-instant relief. (I unloaded my marital pain in the neck a few months later, which had to have helped.)
I never expected that relief to last five years, and neither did the doctor, who I went back to see today. He took a fresh set of X-rays and informed me that the vertebrae collapse he’d seen the first time around had worsened. I’d lost tissue and gained bone spurs and a pinched nerve.
When I turned 43, I wrote a post in the form of a report card, and one of the subjects was health. I’d given myself a grade of 95. Likening the human body to a house, I had concluded the major systems still worked well, the warranties on my joints had held out, and I was generally humming along. Two years later, when I’ve reached an actuarial midpoint, my major systems still work fine but the stairs seem to have collapsed. It’s a threat to my structural integrity, but don’t worry, I’ll get it fixed. I have duct tape.