Would I do this? A nerve ablation for chronic pain?
Two people mentioned nerve ablation to me this week: one in the back and one in the knee. Would I do this?
Holy denervation, Batman. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t, but pain does suck.
The problem is that pain is information, even chronic pain. The current thinking in medicine is that chronic pain is some sort of glitch in the wiring or the brain where something keeps hurting even if we can’t see much of an injury.
Like grief or a broken heart or the death of a loved one.
Those pains can soften, but do they entirely go away? The death of loved ones doesn’t. It’s been a decade since my sister died of cancer and I still think of things that would make her howl with laughter. She understood me in a way that no one in the world does: ok, except for my children. My children are adults now and out in the world and observing other parenting and non-parenting and disastrous young adult choices. My son now has a high school classmate dead of opioid overdose. A topic for another essay.
Back to chronic pain. Medicine in the United States does patients a terrible disservice by talking about the spinal discs all the time. 99 times out of 100, the pain is NOT a disc. The back is very complicated, with 6 layers of muscles, and some of those muscles are only an inch long. They all have to work together in a fluid way. Often, we forget this. Our muscles try to obey us and we lock them into a terrible position and they try and try and try: and then tear and hurt.
Lock them? Yes. We have three main types of muscle: fast twitch fatigable, fast twitch non-fatigable and slow twitch. Slow twitch don’t get much attention in the United States MORE AND FASTER dysfunctional ADHD culture. Slow twitch muscles are the posture muscles. If you lock them in one position, they will stay there. Even when you get up from the computer or desk or bent over picking strawberries.
When the muscles lock, remember that they are all attached to bones. Every muscle attaches to at least two sites. Picture a muscle that crosses the knee joint locking into a shortened position. Now, do you think the knee moves normally? NO, it doesn’t. And if the muscle is tight and locked, the knee joint can be damaged by not being able to move freely.
Now, think about your back. You have seven cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic and five lumbar. So 24 separate bones, and then other bones, like ribs, attached by tendons and ligaments and muscles. You pull a muscle in your lower back playing pickleball. It hurts. When the muscle is injured, it tightens up to protect itself. The surrounding muscles can tighten as well, and then that area doesn’t move right. The other muscles and joints have to attempt to take up the slack! They can’t move normally either! All too often I ask what people did when their back started hurting and all they did was take something to mask the pain and keep going.
So what do I want you to do with a new injury? RICE. Rest, ice, compression, elevation. Rest the muscle. It’s hurt. Ice for ten minute intervals in the first 48 hours, not heat. Heat increases bleeding and swelling. Muscles can bleed if they are torn. You have had a bruise sometime in your life, right? You won’t see a deep muscle bruise, and personally I have trouble looking at my own back. You may add heat after the first 48 hours. Usually the peak of swelling and bleeding is by 48 hours. Compression: if it is an ankle or an elbow, an ace wrap holds the joint still and reduces swelling. You can press ice on your back, or lie on an ice pack. Go ahead and shower but not super hot at first. Elevation for arms and legs: gravity helps reduce swelling and pain.
What if it’s been hurting for a year? Your blog was too late!
Check your posture first. If you have been avoiding moving a part of your body, you need help. If your posture is terrible, you really need help. Take breaks at the computer! Get up and walk! And see your primary care person. Physical therapy, occupational therapy, massage therapy. Pay attention to what makes the pain worse and what makes it better. Alcohol or pot might make if hurt less, but that’s not fixing the problem and could make it worse. Muscle relaxants are not great either. The muscle tightened up to keep from tearing, remember? And scar tissue can form in muscle. You need to work with someone to gently break down that scar tissue without tearing the muscle again. So muscle memory is for injuries too. If a muscle has been traumatized, it has scarring and it remembers. It may tear more easily and will tighten up more easily. Listen to your muscles. They do not just tighten with trauma, they also tighten with stress and are more at risk for injury. Learn how to reduce your stress, go into a parasympathetic relaxed mode, and help your muscles.
For long term chronic pain, I think of present injury, old injury and then brain and emotional injury. We are often afraid of injury, that we will be hurt, that it will hurt forever, that we will be disabled and be alone and starve. Our culture for the most part celebrates the young and strong and the survivors. I don’t think we have a “chronic pain day” where the whole country thanks the people who have chronic pain and work anyhow, to take care of each other and their families. Maybe we should have that. The emotional part of chronic pain must be addressed too.
I would be very cautious about having a nerve cut, or ablated. The exception for me is the abnormal heart pathways that cause arrythmias. Yes, I think ablating them is a good treatment, but we still try other things first. There can be complications of any surgery.
The photograph is me and my ex dancing at our wedding in 1989. Swing dancing is a delight and you have to not injure your partner or yourself! We noticed that even one drink would affect our dancing and our favorite place to dance was at Cabin John Park, which had no alcohol at all. Posture is important. I think the photographer on this one was my ex’s uncle but we also had a dance friend who took wonderful photographs.