It has been almost five years since I shattered my L1 bone. You can read the original story about my broken back here, from back in 2011 when I fell more than two stories from the roof of a building. In hospital just days after the fall, the surgeon and spinal specialist Dr Arun Ranganathan asked me to make a choice, whether to undergo spinal surgery or stay bed bound and let the injury heal naturally. It was a difficult choice, but one thing I remember clearly was what Dr Ranganathan said, that regardless of my choice, my broken back would affect me for the rest of my life.
It is now almost five years later and I’m pleased to have defied the odds and report that my broken back has almost no bearing on my life. There are just a few minor considerations like sleeping on a hard mattress causes pain and I avoid high impact exercise such as running. Cosmetically, I have significant scarring on my back and I gained weight. But for the most part I am happy and healthy and I feel very grateful for my full recovery.
There was a time when I wasn’t feeling so grateful. When I broke my back I opted for surgery. Four metal pins were inserted around my broken L1 bone to stabilise the area, which allowed me to walk and move around whilst the secured bone healed. Regaining muscle strength after the operation was painful at first, but learning to walk and move normally again became a fairly swift process and I was more or less mobile within a month. The real pain was the nerve pain.
I had never known nerve pain before and when it began I was clueless about what it was. The pain would start slowly around late afternoon on the right side of my body in the hip and leg, and would grow stronger and stronger until it was unbearable. As weeks passed, the onset of pain would start earlier in the day until eventually I had constant chronic nerve pain from the moment I got out of bed lasting the entire day. It is hard to describe what it felt like now I no longer need to deal with it, but it is a pain that gets underneath your skin into the bones, like metal poles constantly stabbing you. The worse thing was I didn’t know what the pain was or why it was happening to me. Neither the doctors or the physiotherapists explained what nerve pain was and every time I complained of it I was shut down and told it was pain caused by poor posture and not walking correctly.
The only thing that relieved the pain was lying down and I came to realise it was movement (standing, walking, sitting) that triggered the pain. After an initial period of depression I decided to do something about it and starting researching solutions online, which led me to see a chiropractor. This could not have been a worse choice. The chiropractor, despite the fresh scars on my back, began performing manipulations and using an activator gun, in the hope of stopping the pain. However it only bought on new lower back pain and negated all the physiotherapy I had previously done.
On the physiotherapists advice I started regular exercise. Whilst it did not eliminate the pain it was helpful in relieving the severity of it. At first I did my own workouts in the gym using the cross trainer and rowing machines. As I gained in strength I then started doing yoga and pilates classes.
The next solution I looked for was in medication. My local GP had previously tried two common nerve pain medications with me: Lyrica and Gabapentin. Both are anti-epileptic drugs that work by interfering with the nerve impulses that cause pain. I trialled both for several weeks with little result. Then a doctor at the hospital introduced me to Tramadol, which was a real life saver and enabled me to manage a normal life. Tramadol is a man-made opiate designed to provide short term pain relief. Because it also causes hallucinations and a feeling of relaxation, it has now become a popular drug on the black market, which makes it more difficult to obtain a prescription for. I first tried Tramadol after an afternoon visit to the hospital, by which time the pain in my leg was particularly severe and I was having difficulty walking. The pain relief was not instant however I had an overwhelming feeling of well-being. I began taking Tramadol just in the morning and it made me feel positive and energetic and also reduced the pain. On Tramadol I felt I could do anything and I was able to work long hours, do extra-curricular activities, survive on little sleep, and it reduced my appetite so I also lost weight. The best thing about Tramadol was its anti-anxiety properties and for the entire time I took the medication I never felt anxious or stressed. It was like being on top of the world. I slowly started increasing my dose so I was taking it twice a day, and I experimented with both immediate and slow release capsules.
Unfortunately overtime, my dependency on Tramadol started to become less glamorous. Tramadol makes you constipated, which could sometimes be painful. It also causes extreme drowsiness when mixed with alcohol, so I found it difficult to socialise with my friends at the pub or even enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. Mornings became a nightmare because when I woke up the previous days’ Tramadol had worn off and I would be feeling the comedown and very depressed until the new dose started to kick in. The last straw came in 2014, when Tramadol was classified as a controlled Schedule 3 drug in the UK, meaning I was no longer able to have a repeat prescription and each month it became an ordeal to queue up at the GP for a new prescription. I started to resent being dependent on Tramadol and yearned for a change.
The change came when I reconnected with Dr Ranganathan at Whitechapel Hospital. He had learnt of my chronic pain and was determined to fix it. I underwent x-rays and tests but nothing out of the ordinary was found. He concluded the pain was likely linked to the positioning of the metal pins in my back on the right side, and they could be impinging on some of the nerves when I moved. The alternative diagnosis was that a piece of small bone could have become imbedded in the nerves, in which case nothing could be done.
Hoping it was the former assessment, two years after my accident I underwent surgery to remove two of the pins from the right side of my spine. The operation was relatively quick, with small slits made parallel to the original scar in order to quickly retrieve the pieces. I took two weeks off work to recover.
Fortunately the surgery was a success and the severity of the nerve pain had decreased, although there were some twinges of it. My back was a little tender and weak however I was able to move around without much pain or difficulty. The greatest challenge was recovering from the Tramadol addiction. I went against the doctors advice and stopped taking the medicine cold turkey. For the first two weeks the main physical problems were nausea and diarrhoea. I also felt extremely tired and lethargic but I was unable to sleep. I tried to combat these symptoms by taking vitamin B, C and L-Tyrosine as well as taking frequent walks and hot showers. I felt quite fragile for several weeks but overtime, slowly but surely, I started to feel like myself again. Many people were surprised I was able to stop taking Tramadol so quickly and kept asking me if I had really stopped. However I was never really tempted as I had already made my mind up to stop it. I still have some medicine left and in the past two years I have only taken it once when I had a bad tooth ache.
Throughout the whole process I gained a lot of weight. Prior to breaking my back I had been a slim size 10. When I started taking Tramadol I went down to size 8. At that time I was also doing a lot of exercise in the gym. After my final surgery, the combination of quitting Tramadol, taking L-Tyrosine and being too depressed to exercise saw my weight balloon to a size 12. Ever since it has been a struggle to get back to my former size 10.
After making a full recovery the most important thing for me is to maintain good health by keeping fit and eating well. Because of the trauma it is especially critical that I maintain a strong core and good posture, which is only possible through exercise, otherwise I will experience back pain. I do a combination of yoga, aerobics and core strengthening workouts three times a week, and I also enjoy walking. If you asked me what is the secret to surviving a broken back, I would say it is a combination of self-motivation and exercise. Now, sticking to a healthy diet is the next challenge…
ART OVER SCARS
A few scars is a small price to pay for good health. However having creative tattoos to cover surgical scars is now trending and there is lots of inspiration on the internet. Particularly, scoliosis sufferers who are also likely to undergo back surgery and end up with very long incisions, are posting their tattoos on Pinterest.
In my case I have one long scar down the centre of the spine and then four small incisions parallel on the right hand after recovering from a broken back. I am now in the process of designing a tattoo to cover them.
What are your thoughts, are these spinal tattoos cool or not?
Check out Pinterest for more awesome ideas on spinal tattoo design for women.