Back Pain and College

back pain and college
I felt like an embarrassing disgrace.
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To be in college is thought to be the prime of one’s life. You are young, you are earning a degree, you could have a job or a romantic partner, and your health is likely golden. The only stress you may have is around financial aid or finals season, not surrounding a diagnosis that limits your abilities. The sky's the limit, not your own body.

My phone vibrated in my pocket as I got off the bus to go to class one day. I had a full day of classes, four nearly in a row, in addition to a 90-minute work session, and knew that the day was going to be long. My back was already sore from my commute, a few busses and an hour long train ride, and I just wanted to lay down. Laying down was the quickest way to get my symptoms to calm down. The email I had gotten only made the day sound longer.

I am an anthropology student. One of my professors emailed that another anthropology professor was taking his introductory level students to a nearby park that doubles as a digging site for archeological studies. My professor invited my class to go along as a last minute field trip. The class I was taking was a high level anthropology class, so perhaps my professor thought it would be a good idea to have the intro kids see where they could end up if they chose a path down anthropology. Regardless, it meant no actual class, so I was excited to go.

Up until this point, I did not exactly know what was wrong with me. All I knew was that when I sat on hard surfaces, my back would flare up. It was as if there was a concentrated ball of fire in my lower left back. It would, in turn, make my left leg feel the same way, sometimes to the point where I would be limping or feel like I would need to use a cane to keep my balance. By the time of this email, I had been battling this for about ten months. The only diagnoses I had were sciatica in my left leg and just chronic back pain. I looked to my mother, who also has various health complications, and tried to find refuge there until doctors could tell me what was wrong with me. She has arthritis, so for a few months, including on this day, I was trying to wrap my head around a potential arthritis diagnosis at age twenty.

It was a beautiful fall day in Connecticut, the last nice one before it got too cold and too windy to enjoy the outdoors. The trees were an incredible mix of warm colors and the air was crisp yet enjoyable. I was able to leave work a few minutes early to start to head over to the park and enjoy the time with fellow anthropology friends. We got there with plenty of time to spare and my back felt fine. For having sat through three classes and work, it was a good day. The pain was perhaps a three or a four on the one-to-ten pain scale, which was normal and expected at this point in the day.

Once everyone arrived, we all took the trek to the dig sites the park offered. We started walking down a slight, manageable hill to reveal where exactly where we were headed.

Into a forest.

Downhill.

Where the only way is back up an incline.

I immediately broke into a sweat. With this chronic pain issue of mine, I could barely handle stairs. I was dependent on elevators and even needed to invest in a rolling backpack instead of a traditional backpack to ease my pain. A hike was not what I was expecting, but unless I wanted to sit by myself for however long we were staying, I had no choice but to get down there.

By the time we reached the sites, I was perhaps a six or so on the pain scale. Getting up there, but I did my best to keep it together. I watched as everyone explored the area and mostly tried to rest and focus on breathing through the pain. I had medicine with me, however, the only medicine that actually helps me through sciatic flare ups and back pain is Aleve PM. Now was not the time for a nap. I found a tree stump to rest on before all too soon we were headed back up the hill.

Being twenty years old and having this invisible condition took more of a toll on my mental health than I anticipated. All the way back up the hill I felt like an embarrassing disgrace. I should be able to go up this hill without needing help. I should be able to go up this hill without needing to take a break. I felt out of shape and horrible about myself despite the fact that what I was dealing with was out of my control. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and forget about the day. In retrospect, I would have preferred staying inside the classroom than to go on an impromptu hike.

I finally made it back to the top of the hill with my pain pushing an eight on the pain scale. I needed heat, rest, and my favorite stuffed animals to feel better. It took me quite a while to get home that day. I needed to get back to campus and wait for a ride, but resting there barely helped. It wasn’t until the next morning I felt any kind of relief, and even then I was exhausted. Without medicine like Aleve PM or anything other drowsy medicine, this pain would keep me up all night, further disrupting my college experience.

About a month later I finally got my official diagnosis—a herniated disc in my lower back. To this day I am unsure where it came from. The doctor was unable to determine whether it was from an injury or if my disc just grew that way. The disc is pushing against my sciatic nerve, thus causing sciatica down my left leg. My treatment includes stretches, pain medication when needed, and if all else fails, I could opt to have a cortisone shot directly at the site to ease symptoms for a few months at a time.

Having this condition has forced me to think more than two steps ahead most of the time. Had I thought to ask about the details of the trip, I could have spared myself the physical stress. Had I not been embarrassed about my health, I could have experienced less frustration and asked for more help. This is something I will likely be battling for a long time, longer than I have already battled (I am approaching a year and a half with this condition) so I am ready to buckle in and get ready for whatever life will throw at me next.

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