Recumbent Reflections: Thoughts on Back Pain, Gratitude & Self-Care

by Tammy Strobel on July 29, 2013

Important notes: I am not a medical professional and this article is based on my personal experience. If you have a severe back injury, see your doctor immediately. 

***

looking up

When I was in high school and college, I spent my winter weekends and vacations racing down the slopes at high rates of speed. I was part of a few ski teams and loved to race. My love of high speeds eventually led to a few epic crashes during my racing years. As a result, I ended up with back problems and a finicky knee.

Over the years, I’ve experienced painful muscles spams in my back and usually these types of spasms leave me prone for two or three days. In the past, good chiropractors have been able to fix me up quickly. Typically, stress, improper warm-ups prior to exercise, or overdoing my exercise routine has brought on back pain.

Luckily, over the last three years I haven’t experienced any back problems. I’ve done my best to take good care of myself, despite numerous stressors that have occurred over the last year and a half.  For example, my dad died in June 2012, my partner lost his job, and we moved three times. By the time May 2013 rolled around, I was less stressed and felt better about my personal life. Plus, I was thrilled to move to Chico on July 1, 2013.

We spent the first few weeks in Chico cycling, getting to know our neighbors and then on the 12th Logan and I celebrated our ten-year wedding anniversary! Everything seemed to be going really well and I felt happy, at least until I woke-up on July 13th.  As I watched the sunlight stream through my loft window, I raised my arms to stretch my muscles. I felt something pop in my upper back and I immediately knew something was very wrong. I spent the morning laying on our window bench with intense muscles spasms. It felt like someone was squeezing my back muscles incredibly tightly and then jumping on them with all their weight. This continued on and off for the next week and I went to a chiropractor for help.

Initially, my chiropractor thought I pulled a muscle in my back. However, after ten days of intense pain, I went to Enloe Prompt Care and the doctor who helped me said I had thoracic strain. In my exit care paper work, the doctor noted:

“You have injured the tendons that attach to the upper part of your back behind your chest. This injury is called a thoracic strain, thoracic sprain, or mid-back strain. The cause of thoracic strain varies. A less sever injury involves pulling a muscle or tendon without tearing it. A more severe injury involves tearing a muscle or tendon . . . Longstanding strains may be caused by overuse or improper form during certain movements. Sudden strains may occur due to injury of not warming up properly before exercise. Often, there is no obvious cause for a thoracic strain.  Torn ligaments and tendons require as long to heal as broken bones. Average healing times may be only 1 week for a mild strain. For torn muscles and tendons, healing time maybe be up to 6 weeks to 2 months.” 

At this point, it looks like my recovery time will be up to 6 weeks; maybe longer. I’m hopeful that I will be able to move with more ease by the end of the week. So far today has been a good day and I’m looking forward to more of them!

***

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned from this experience and wanted to share some of those reflections with you.

Sleep is vital to recovery.  Following my injury, I tried to be “tough.” But I was in so much pain that I wasn’t sleeping through the night. After ten days, I reached a breaking point and I decided to visit Enloe Prompt Care. The doctor who diagnosed my injury also prescribed medication to help me sleep and manage pain. I’ve found that if I don’t get enough sleep, it makes recovering from an injury challenging.

Accepting help is hard.  I’m extremely grateful for all the help I’ve received over the past few weeks. However, it can be hard accepting help because I feel so vulnerable. Not being able to do basic things, like walk to the bus stop, bicycle, or go shopping makes me weak and unworthy. Logically, I know those things aren’t true. However, being housebound for the last few weeks has left me emotionally run down.

Living in the tiny house with a serious injury is challenging. Since I injured myself, I’ve been sleeping downstairs. Our window nook turns into a single bed and I’m grateful we built that feature into the tiny house. It’s too difficult for me to climb up and down the loft ladder with back pain.

Living in our little house works perfectly 90% of the time. However, the last few weeks have tested me. It’s the first time since we moved in that I’ve wanted a traditional shower in my home, an extra bedroom, a refrigerator, and a little more space overall.  I love our little abode, yet this experience made question the long-term feasibility of tiny house living.

Being car-free with an injury is difficult. We are about a half mile from the nearest bus stop and currently I can’t walk that far, so car-sharing has come in handy over last few weeks. Luckily, my brother and sister in-law and my neighbors have been extremely generous and have let us borrow their cars. However, if my back problems continue we might have to buy a car or do a short-term car rental.

Reading on my Kindle and iPhone is awesome.  Right after I strained my back I couldn’t hold a traditional book and looking down was painful. The Kindle and iPhone are lightweight and enabled me to read with ease. I’ve read more than ten books over the last few weeks and so far my favorite reads include, “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” & “Orange is the New Black.”

Engaging in one creative activity everyday brings me joy. My normal routine has been disrupted. However, I’ve been doing one (or more) creative activity everyday, whether that’s writing a paragraph or two in my journal or taking a photo for “My Morning View” photography series. Keeping my creative juices flowing keeps me motivated and happy.

Practicing gratitude keeps me sane. Being housebound for the last few weeks hasn’t been fun. I didn’t want my summer unfolding in this way. I want to be in Bidwell Park, walking, cycling, and taking photos. I’d also love to spend mornings writing in coffee shops or taking weekend trips with Logan. But that isn’t the reality. It hurts to type, sit, and walk for long periods of time. If I want to recovery fully, I have to take care of myself; and that means taking naps, continuing to see my doctors, and doing gentle physical therapy.

Even though I’m not happy about this situation, I’m incredibly grateful. I’m married to an amazing human — Logan — who has been incredibly patient and helpful throughout this process! Plus, my neighbors are wonderful and my brother and sister in-law have been so helpful! And as an added bonus, my mom is only an hour away from Chico. Over the last few weeks, she has come over for dinner a few times and has kept me company. I’m so grateful for my family and new neighbors.

Moving Forwardwriting in the digital age

Teaching. I will still be teaching my writing e-course this summer. I feel well enough to teach and to engage with my students. With that being said, my blogging schedule will be different during August.

August Break. I’ve decided to participate in The August Break this year. It’s an awesome community project and it was created by Susannah Conway. In Susannah’s words:

“Back in August 2010 I decided to give myself a break from writing blog posts and instead shared a photo or two each day as a way to be present in my days without the pressure of finding words. I blogged about it (of course), invited everyone to join me and lo, The August Break was born. This is the fourth year I’ve hosted it and it’s been SO MUCH FUN to see it take off as a month-long community project.” 

During the month of August, I won’t be telling stories with words. Instead, I will only be posting photo essays to the blog. My normal posting schedule will resume in September.

Healing & self-care. Over the next month, I will continue to visit the community acupuncture clinic, my chiropractor, and doctor. Also, a few readers encouraged me to check out Essential Somatics. I recently purchased “Move without Pain” and I might do a consultation with Martha Peterson.

Also, I chatted with my friend Dee last week and she gave me really good advice. She said:

“If you had the flu you wouldn’t feel bad about resting would you? I’d encourage you to give yourself permission not to do the things you want to do. How you take care of your body over the next few months will determine how you feel over the next twenty years.”

As I go about my days, I’m keeping Dee’s advice in the forefront of my mind. I want to fully recovery from this injury. I don’t want to push myself too hard and end up with chronic back pain for the rest of my life.

***

Have you had a serious injury before? How did you cope as you recovered? Share your story in the comments section.

Be well,
Tammy

1 Nancy Peacock July 29, 2013

Tammy – I have been thinking of you in the tiny house with a back injury. The first thing I thought of was the ladder to the loft – so I am relieved to know you can sleep downstairs. Still I know it’s not easy. I’ve injured my back several times and the view from the bed can get pretty boring. Perhaps even more so when the vista is so short. I admire you and Logan and you tiny house. I think of building one myself – maybe two, one for my partner and one for me. I wish you well and am sending you healing thoughts. All Best – Nancy Peacock

2 Piggywhistles July 29, 2013

Hi Tammy. It sounds as if you are keeping your spirits up and making the best of things. I had a lower back injury a few years ago and ended up having surgery. I was off work for about 6 months. It was certainly a time of enforced rest. Like you I was very lucky to have a wonderful people around me. My prayers go with you from Australia. Lindy

3 Bernadette Garner July 29, 2013

Take care Tammy……I loved reading this…..So many people do not rest or take care of themselves after an injury…..You are so very smart to be taking it easy and recuperating…..Hope you are up and fully recovered soon…..

4 Sandra Pawula July 29, 2013

Dear Tammy,

I really feel for you. I’ve had two challenging periods this year. One with bronchitis that wouldn’t go away for months and another when my back went out similar to your challenge. It took about two weeks to get over the back strain, but that was longer than I’d ever experienced before. Like you, I was prone and almost all movement hurt.

This kind of pain can truly arose compassion for others who suffer or will suffer from such pain. The truth is, we never know what life will bring us next. It’s a stretch to meet the challenges with grace, but I see you are doing so by keep the flow of your creativity going in short bursts and keep your inspiration up with reading. You might be the one down now, but it could be Logan next or someone else in your circle. So there’s no way you are unworthy! These things happen to all of us.

I hear what you are saying about the tiny house. It had lots of positive, but there are times when it can feel too small. We’re living in a 450 square feet studio, so much bigger than you, and have decided to expand to about 900. This feels like a more manageable, but still relatively small to me for my own peace of mind and well being. Thanks for being so honest. I love that about you!

5 Andrea Smith July 29, 2013

I have chronic back pain from two car accidents (neither my fault) back in 1987 and 89. It’s pretty manageable with regular chiro visits, but earlier this month, I slipped on a little discarded piece of fruit at the grocery store and landed hard. I couldn’t break my fall because I was carrying my little 3 1/2 month old granddaughter at the time. She was safe; I am a wreck.

I’m also not sleeping well due to pain, and the worst is when I’m trying to get out of bed. It’s like people are stabbing me with spears. I actually dread laying down because I have to get up again at some point. I think it’s time for me to borrow your friend, Dee’s advice and take some time to recuperate.

Take care of yourself! I’m glad you have family and friends and your Kindle to keep you company.

Andrea

6 Susan July 30, 2013

Hi, Tammy!

I’m a lurker. I bought myself and my best friend your “Happiness” book, and I’ve been following your tiny house adventures for a while now.

And this past winter, I injured my back – bulging lower disc – by (of all things) sneezing.

Yeah, I know. I’ve got that kind of luck. Don’t ask about the time I fell off a horse and ended up landing on it’s head.

I have not had to work towards recovery while in a tiny house. But I’ve gone from taking an hour and a half just to get out of bed (all with my husband’s assistance) and using a walker to even get to the bathroom, to where I am now – walking without any assistance, going up and down stairs pain-free, etc. – all within four months.

So – first, a word of caution about reading electronic devices while recovering – be careful how you hold it. I am currently having to use steroid cream on my left thumb because I have tendonitis in the knuckle joint from holding my I-Pad over my head while flicking around using my right hand. I tend to stay in one position while reading. Doing this while holding an electronic device over your head becomes a problem after the first hour.

Let’s not talk about my hand spasming and dropping the thing on my chest. I don’t think my sternum has recovered fully either (I did mention the crazy luck thing already, didn’t I).

But onward about recovery – do EVERYTHING your doctors tell you. This includes when they tell you NOT to do things.

Finding a good physical therapist and/or chiropractor is KEY. And when they say to keep pushing your envelope of ability, do your best to do it. The more you can do today, the more you can build on for tomorrow.

Learning to be patient with my body was a VERY difficult lesson for me to learn.

Being less prideful was a difficult lesson to learn (who knew getting socks on your feet would become a family event?).

This all happened right after my 50th birthday, so I thought, “Oh, great – I guess this is my new reality from here on out.” I completely had myself convinced that this was my new life – permanently.

And you have to remember that while this is your new reality, it is not permanent.

You can work through to the other side of this. It does take work. It does take time. Learning to be still is work. Learning to sit and move differently is work. But you are used to work – you have worked through tougher things in the past, although you may not think so just now. You can do this. As you recover, you will need to incorporate new habits to prevent a future injury.

What I’m trying to say is do not let your present situation necessarily change your entire future. Things I thought I would never be able to do again – ride my bike, go for long walks or swim – what I thought I would never be able to do … is now part of my recovery therapy. I do not bound up the stairs in our home, but I don’t fear them and do not have to take more than 30 minutes to go up or down them. I hold myself differently when washing dishes, etc., but I do them.

Self-care is a hard thing to learn. Try to think of yourself as a five-year-old child. Use the same patience for yourself as you would that child.

Finally, for me, I had to learn that my body was trying to tell me things, and I had to discover how to listen. I just wish it didn’t have to scream in order to get my attention.

Hang in there : )

S.

7 Debby July 29, 2013

Tammy, I am so sorry to hear of your back injury. I have struggled with back pain for many years. On June 6 I had hip replacement surgery. I tripped at my son’s house when we were building a play structure for my grandchildren (in Chico). I too have had a hard time on the recovery trail. I was in the hospital and a rehab for about a month before I finally came home. Home for me now has 16 stairs to get into my apartment and it was a real struggle to get up them. I spent about 2 weeks “locked” in my home, not being able to get up or down. I have had many of your experiences as well. Humbling myself and letting others do things for me, not being able to take a “real” shower for almost 6 weeks and having to eat only foods I could place in plastic containers with tops to get to the table. I hasn’t been fun. Today I put down the walker for the first time and was able to walk with a cane for the first time. I still have 4 more weeks of physical therapy to complete. I too have suffered from “cabin fever”. I love your idea of doing one activity a day to help keep the spirits up. It is sometimes very hard to do, but well worth the effort. I wish you speedy recovery and may you never have to go through this ever again!

8 Anne-Marie July 29, 2013

I know how painful it can be when you sprain/strain tendons. As you know I had my ankle sprain when I was going to participate in your photo class. Only now – about 6 months later – I am somewhat back to more normal. Still it is not the same and I don’t know if it ever will be quite the same. Have worked for maybe 3 months with a very good, holistic chiropractor in Mt Shasta – and he has confirmed that it was a very serious injury. As I believe that everything happens for a reason I have done quite a bit of asking inside and it was also a past life involved (I believe in past, and future, lives). You might want to try an ointment which seemed to have helped me a lot – Dr Christopher’s bone and tissue ointment.
It is really important to take care of yourself and take the time to heal. That’s what I have been practicing for many months now.

9 Rachel July 30, 2013

Don’t forget the “log roll” way out of bed. It is the only way I can get out of bed or off an exam table. Yoga has been my best way of recovery after physical therapy. I just hope I never get those constant spasms again, as they were just as you describe them. I at least know how to nip them in the bud if I feel the twinge (or so I think). Stress is horrible, if only we could eliminate that, all would be well with the world. No one understands back pain unless they too have experienced it. Even watching someone with back pain can’t explain it. I hope for you speedy recovery so that you can get back into a routine and keeping this problem at bay.

10 Patty July 30, 2013

Tammy, Several years ago I had very serious medical issues resulting in 53 days at USCF Medical Center. What I took away was this:

Humility is a gift we give to others.

It is so hard to receive kindness. Hard to admit we need help, hard to even figure out what we can’t do. But think about a time when you helped someone else. Helped them stand from a sitting position, or got something off a too-high shelf at the market. These are super-tiny gestures, but they feel good to the one performing them. Doing nice things for other people feels good. So think of it this way — you are giving other people the opportunity to feel good about themselves, by sacrificing your pride. Isn’t that nice of you?

11 Ramona Powles July 30, 2013

Hi Tammy,

I too have a similar injury from a boating accident I was in 25 years ago. It never failed several times a year I would twist or turn the wrong way and then be in excruciating pain for several days to several weeks. The only thing that helped was muscle relaxers and traction at the Physical Therapist. About 7 years ago I discovered inversion and this helps me tremendously and the episodes have become few and far between (thankfully). I am glad you are starting to feel better. You are very lucky to have the support of family and friends. I wish you well ASAP.

Take care.
Ramona

12 Susan July 30, 2013

Tammy sorry to hear of your injury. Resting is most important thankful your are the time to do so. Since you are doing a lot of reading I fine God’s word to be a comfort to me. Amazon has many translations some are free. Resting body and soul…a good thing.:-) Take care. Will be praying for your complete recovery.

13 swalia July 30, 2013

get well soon, tammy….blessings n prayers!

14 Robin July 30, 2013

Dear Tammy, I am sorry your back is still bothering you. It is very hard to be patient while healing. I think you are lucky to have a great partner, and a career you can still maintain with your injury. Try to focus on what you are able to do instead of what you can’t….but will again in the near future. Ugh! That is easier said than done. My other advice is to be on an anti inflammatory diet, which may help you heal quicker. The Abascal Way is one option. Feel better soon.

15 Kathy July 30, 2013

I am sorry for your pain and the disability it presents. I have a cervical strain and know about the pain you are experiencing. I just found out about something that could be helpful. It is called Infrared Laser Therapy. I haven’t had the therapy but check if out at: K-LaserUSA.com

Hope you soon will be back to your “normal” self. May the Lord give you energy and strength in the next few months.

16 Rebecca July 30, 2013

My serious injury recently was falling down our stairs one early morning they are very dark. I really hurt my left foot and as a result could hardly walk on it (not sure if that is where the hole in our wall came from either) and had to use a cane.
Since I sleep on a futon on the floor it was very hard to get out of bed in the mornings. I had to take care of everything household, take care of our pets, and our daughter. My husband was of little help and my daughter was too young to help either. It was very frustrating for me. I did do yoga and yes there were some poses that I absolutely could not do but, this seemed to help with the pain and to help get me moving better again.
Good luck and I hope your back feels better soon.

17 Ranee July 30, 2013

I can truly relate to your back pain. I have suffered much over my many years. If you email me your mailing address, I will send you something that I think may make your e-reading on your kindle even more comfortable. My husband and a friend have an online business that sells comfort handles for e-readers, I-pads etc. I will send you one to see if it will help.

18 Anna Szostek July 30, 2013

Hi Tammy!

Thank you for sharing your experience of back pain from injury. I’ve spent the last two years healing a long-standing spinal scoliosis with the help of a chiropractor (and recently began blogging about it here: http://www.arakhneweb.net/treatments-for-functional-scoliosis/). This means that my back always hurts in some way, and that physical activity – even typing – can be really difficult. I’ve received a lot of relief from herbal medicines, particularly Jamaican Dogwood, which releases muscle tension and may be helpful for you, as well. Love the idea of doing one creative thing a day – that’s been keeping me sane, as well! :)

19 Pennie July 30, 2013

Tammy – so sorry you are still dealing with this problem! It is hard to be patient and, seriously, would be easier to be inside if it was winter. Enjoy the month off and hope you are much better when you return . . .

Hugs – Pennie

20 Keeley July 30, 2013

Dee is wise, wise, wise. Be gentle with yourself. When you start hearing the negative, snippy voices, remind yourself that you are loved, you are taking care of yourself, and that this, too, will pass. I really appreciated your forthright honesty in this post. Much love to you.
In regard to your questions, I have been injured many times. The one that came to mind is when I was depressed after the birth of my first child. I was quite young (21) and didn’t cope very well. However, over the years I learned well, and when depression hit again following the death of our unborn fourth child, and my middle child’s descent into destructive behaviour, I coped better. I allowed myself to notice negative, angry, bitter thoughts without condemning myself for having them. I just continued to breathe. Some days I was pretty upset that I woke up and was still breathing. =P I would set myself little, easily-accomplished tasks for the day so that I felt productive. I allowed myself to rest both mentally and physically. I allowed myself to say “no” when I needed to. And through it all, I was daily grateful for a husband who was kind and supportive all while grieving in his own way too.
And here we are three years later. Our child is still dead, our son is still struggling, but we are (mostly) at peace.

Seasons in life come and go. Times are tough now, but they won’t be later. It’s all good. You will be well soon. Life is beautiful. =)

21 Caroline McGraw / A Wish Come Clear July 30, 2013

Tammy, I’m so sorry to hear of your back injury, and I’m sending a (gentle) hug your way! Your post came at a perfect time for me, as I’m not feeling well this afternoon. It can be a struggle to listen to one’s body and take pause, and I appreciate reading about your journey — it’s helped give me permission to stop and take some necessary rest. Thank you! xo

22 R M July 30, 2013

I am sorry to hear you are in such pain. I am, however, glad to see one of the major players in the tiny house community FINALLY calling attention to the problems standard tiny house plans create for those living with disabilities or merely chronic pain from past injuries. I admire the life, and agree with many of the values behind it. However, for those of us personally affected by less-than-perfect physical health or living with a loved one who is affected, we are resoundingly left out of the discussion by builders (as potential clients requiring adaptations, and generally less able to afford the uber-custom designs) and absolutely ignored by the majority of the tiny-house community.

Maybe you can finally change this, Tammy.

23 R M August 1, 2013

(Well, that came out totally wrong and way too harsh.) Get well soon.

24 Sue August 5, 2013

Your apology made me laugh! For sure these readers know you were well intentioned. Sometimes life is just not “one size fits all” and it sounds like you are searching out the adjustments to make this particular style work for you. Good luck!

25 Lisa Black July 30, 2013

Tammy,
I am glad you are taking it easy and your back is improving. I also think Dee is a wise and special friend. People often feel that symptoms or injuries that can not be seen by the eye are often going to resolve on their own. They may also feel that people won’t believe them. In reality injuries or symptoms that can’t be seen are worthy of attention: medical and personal. Delaying treatment delays living, feeling better and improved chances of recovery. I am happy you have listed your experience, reflections, lessons learned. People should give themselves permission to heal without guilt. Drawing our focus inward, centers us and improves our wellbeing. If we fill our own cups first, we can nourish others from the overflow. I also appreciate your honesty in reflecting how tiny house living works with functional limitations.
Take care, Lisa

26 Ann July 31, 2013

Tammy, wishing you recovery and relief from your pain.

27 Denise July 31, 2013

As a fairly new reader to your blog (or any blog for that matter) I have enjoyed your insights and your pictures. Always get a smile from the ones that include your toes. I took your “recommendation” and read Rhonda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and followed it up with her new book, Does This Church Make Me Look Fat. I haven’t laughed like that in quite some time. Ms Janzen does rise to the occassion and makes you realize that just about everything can be handled with grace, humour and a little faith. May we all cope so well. Rest and take care of your back. Happy anniversary to you and Logan. My husband and I just celebrated our 37th.

28 Debbie Durham July 31, 2013

Tammy,
As I write, I am standing at my desk, the keyboard sitting on top of two thick dictionaries – all to avoid pain resulting from a compressed nerve in my right arm, possibly ulnar nerve entrapment. I am seeing an acupuncturist, chiropractor, and Rolfing specialist to find relief, and eventual freedom from chronic pain. I am encouraged to stretch, strengthen back muscles, hydrate, “shake”, use my left hand to mouse, and massage the trigger points with a backknobber. I have learned to be humble, and better sympathize with those who live with chronic pain. Ignoring even mild pain at early onset was a mistake. Crying is helpful! I only want to send you healing thoughts, understanding how difficult this is. Pain trumps everything! Last, I’d like to thank you for being honest about the limits of living in a tiny house when one is injured. It is a critical factor as we all think about living more simply.

29 Teri Kojetin August 3, 2013

First off, I wish you a complete recovery, Tammy. I’ve had a couple occasions in my life where I’ve been forced to
convalescence and it can be challenging! When I was five months pregnant with my second child I was living in Mexico and contracted Hepatitis. I had to stay in bed for 5 weeks. My husband and friends had to take care of my 1 1/2 yr old daughter. I tried to keep busy with reading and made a cross stitch baby quilt for the little one on the way. But that was about all I had to occupy myself with. It was so boring! You would think that rest and relaxation would be wonderful, but too much of a good thing is hard.

About 12 years ago I started having lower back spasms. I would twist my back or lift too much and it would trigger spasms. I would have to lay still on my back or sit propped with pillows in my recliner for 3-5 days, take muscle relaxants, use ice and heat and ointments and use a cane to get up and down. I usually get them once every year or two. Fortunately I could still type on the laptop, read, and now had tv, which I didn’t have in Mexico. But I needed help with so much. I felt helpless and muscle spasms are so painful. It tends to bring on depression. I’m thankful it didn’t last too long but I always had to miss a week of work which made it hard financially.

One thing I did discover. My last back spasm was almost two years ago, right before I started working from home. Since then the stress level is way down in my life and I don’t have to lift heavy boxes of paper anymore. In fact, I haven’t had to visit a doctor once except for the usual annual physical, whereas when I worked out of the home it seemed I was constantly visiting the doctor.

I hope your recovery goes well and I’m glad you have been able to manage and that you have people in your life to help you!

Teri

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