Zap Me Back- How Physical Therapy Saved My Life

physical therapy for back pain
Spoiler alert: Happy ending.
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Recently, I sat on the floor of my closet and pulled on my ratty pair of worn, black Chucks. I was late for work and had spent the last ten minutes rushing around the house, slinging cat food, throwing the ball at the dog, and pulling on clothes that somewhat matched. With the final swish of the tied shoelaces, I jumped to my feet and shook my hair out.

Zap. It hit me: I had just sat on the ground and then got up without using my hands. And I felt fine. I wiggled my butt, tensed my calf muscles, stretched my back, cracked my neck… nothing. I felt fine.

Cue ugly crying and a surge of joy.

It is November 2018 and I am able to walk, sit, play, workout, and exist with minimal to no pain on a daily basis. Six months ago, I was facing a partial to full spinal fusion, was taking four different types of pain management pills a day, and contemplating suicide. All this after a second L5-S1 discectomy in February 2018 that was supposed to alleviate the pain, but just changed the type of pain I was experiencing. After three months of recovery, I was not getting better. I was ready to end it all.

It’s funny, to look back and see how one moment, an infinitesimal amount of time in your life, can pivot you in a new direction. When they say that we are all just seconds away from a life changing catastrophe, it’s no joke. My life pivoted in April 2012 with the slightly-off turn of a 4x4 Utility Vehicle. Athletic, svelte, carefree Megan fell out. ZAP! Life would never be the same. The vehicle fell on me. I remember feeling squished in the grass and mud and a burning sensation on my leg (the undercarriage of the vehicle was burning my skin). I remember being worried about my cell phone in my back pocket. I remember being worried about snakes and bugs in the grass. I was worried about the other women in the vehicle with me. But I was not worried about my body.

I should have been worried about my body. I had burns all over the right side of my body. I shattered several bones in my foot, separated my right side shoulder from the clavicle, cracked vertebrae in my neck, broke several bones in my hands, and bruised pretty much every inch of skin on my right side. I was bloody, bruised, and broken. But everything was fine. I could be fixed. Casts, meds, light duty, and braces and I was good to go. I went on with my life, visited and ran around Toronto, moved to another state, and began to get involved in my new community. I was fine.

There is a serious amount of denial that happens when you’re young and fit and poor as hell. You could have a knife sticking out of your head, and you will reason, “Just a quick pull and this towel will stop the blood.” Even though I had had a traumatic accident with a lot of bodily harm, pain and immobility did not register as a big deal that 2012 winter. I struggled getting in and out of bed; no kidding, I was broken all over not six months earlier. Basic yoga poses were impossible to do anymore, even though I had been doing yoga for more than ten years.

Well, I told myself, getting old sucks (I was 22). I fell down a lot more than I used to and any sudden movement sent searing pain down my spine and legs; I stocked up on ibuprofen  because I don’t have money for a doctor. This flirtation with denial went on and on and on… until one day I fell and could not get up.

“How have you been walking?!” This reply came from the doctor, the nurse, and finally the neurosurgeon who all balked at my MRI results and then chewed me out. I could have become paralyzed, perhaps permanently if I had continued to go on without medical treatment. I could have ruined my life, ruined my health, blah blah blah. Once the lectures and the medical jargon stopped, I found out the root of my excruciating pain. Crushed discs in my back resulted in bulging discs, and the almost complete removal of L5-S1, which had been mostly obliterated. No one had caught the lower back issues in the initial reactions to my accident and now I was paying dearly for the oversight. I went under the knife in 2013, a week after standing in my brother’s wedding, and almost a year after the accident.

Looking back, that accident and surgery affected my health, probably for the rest of my life. What people, specialists, researchers, doctors, whoever deems it necessary to comment on medical procedures, do not tell you is the subtle effects it has on your life. My brush with death and then brush with permanent paralysis were always in the back of my mind as I made decisions.

Three years later, summer of 2017 was wrapping up. With health and vigor restored, I had taken off the glasses and faced reality. Accident and surgery were in the past. I had to move on. My marriage was over, my job was taking off, and I was living the life. I had went to a foreign country, hiked all summer, visited my boyfriend in another state, and was living life again. I was happy.

My leg hurt. It was numb and tight, like a cramp that would not go away. I stretched and walked and worked out. I stopped wearing heels, went to the chiropractor, and started popping ibuprofen like it was going out of style. I was fine, just stress, I told myself, probably pulled something from chasing my nephews around. No need for the doctor, no need to waste precious money to be told to stretch it out. Getting old was a bitch  (I was 28).

My leg hurt.

My back hurt.

My hips hurt.

I hurt.

I am a librarian, specifically a programming librarian. I plan programs, do outreach, go places, meet people, and am generally working over 40 hours a week and spend much of that time running around, carrying loads of books, hauling children into my lap to read a book, and other things. One of my favorite aspects of my job is visiting elementary schools and daycares to read stories. My favorite place is a low-income daycare. They don’t get to go to the library much, so I have become their library. Shrieks of “IT’S LIBRARY LADY!! SHE’S HERE!” followed by pandemonium to get to the reading time carpet greets me when I get there. It does a lot for one’s self esteem to be a visiting dignitary.

One day, in January of 2018, with a full five months of a new debilitating pain under my belt and with thirty added pounds expanding my belt, I sat on the reading time carpet and read a wonderful story called “Creepy Pair of Underwear” by Aaron Reynolds. I had the kids whipped up into a laughing frenzy by time I was supposed to leave. Surrounded by kids trying to hug me, I got up… and fell. They laughed, thinking the silly antics were continuing. I was about to puke from the pain and only the potential traumatizing of children stopped me.

A week later, I sat in another neurosurgeon’s office, with my mother. She had pulled a bunch of favors through her hospital job and got me MRIs and appointments in a snap. Surely, it was a pulled muscle. Nothing too bad.

“How have you been walking?!” L5-S1 disc was again the culprit. It was almost completely bulging out of my spine, nearly severing nerves in my leg. Surgery. Now. “How have you been walking?!”

Surgery, a month out of work, and careful walking and stretching. All was good.

Just kidding. The pain was back, but this time was sharp, stabbing, and burning. Every move causes nauseating headaches and the need to projectile vomit. I was crying all the time. I miss a lot of work. My friend, who has her own litany of medical problems, loaned me a spare walker. I was 28, getting around my house in a walker. My husband had wildland fire season, so he had left. My parents had to clean my house and do pretty much everything. I spent days in bed, popping pain pills, anti-inflammatory pills, muscle relaxers, anything and everything. I took Zoloft for depression at the time, and was taking 2-4 of those 50 mg pills a day. No help. I sporadically went to work and when I did, could only do a half day.

From April to June, I would lay in bed at night and stare at my dresser, trying desperately to ignore the burning in my back and trying to not move to avoid stabbing pains from any little movement. My clothes no longer fit. I was the heaviest I had ever been and the weight gain was not slowing down. I would come home, eat, drink, and cry on my couch. I would call my husband, who was fighting fire and in danger, and cry. I spent a lot of time in bed. I would just cry and stare at my faded mint green dresser. The dresser in which my .38 in its holster sat in the drawer. I contemplated the feeling of the gun, the cold glint of the barrel, the round smoothness of the trigger, and the sudden shock of a bullet in my head. And then black. Oh glorious black nothingness, no back pain, no leg pain, no falling, no nothing. Each night, I stared and each night I fell into painful, fitful sleep, dreaming of ways I could fade away.

“A partial to full fusion might fix it or it might not. You’re so young. But you’re in such pain.” The neurosurgeon and his assistant talked in circles around each other. I had undergone an epidural injection which did nothing. I was on pills which did nothing. The surgery was successful, but now there were other issues. They talked round and round, making it obvious they didn’t know what to do other than cut me open and try again.

“I think we need to try physical therapy,” my mother cut in. Her words sliced through the air, leaving silence. She had been to all of my appointments, had seen all of my angst, and was done. I was done fighting for myself. She was not done fighting for me. She was just getting started. They argued with her, argued against physical therapy, said my problems were beyond it. She was resolute.

I went to the appointment with my mom. I was nervous, in pain, and exhausted. I was not ready for treadmills, stretching, balls, and rubber bands, all the trappings of physical therapy I had seen on tv. I wanted someone to just zap me and make me better.

Stacy was medium height, blond, and chipper. Ugh. She knew my mom. They chatted for a minute and then she ushered me to the back. Mom sat nearby and watched.

“So, tell me about how your body feels.” She said.

I cried. And then word vomited all the pain, agony, suffering, failures, and suicidal tendencies of the past six months. She took it in stride and said, “We can fix that.”

Yeah right.

She did a complete exam to see where my body was at. I could barely do any of the tests and cried the whole time. She then explained that she was not the treadmills, pushups kind of physical therapist. She concentrated on ‘waking’ my muscles up and reigniting the nerves and tendons. She was like a spinal specialist, but not. She had me lay on my side and stretched my legs out. She worked on my back. She worked on my back through my stomach, pressing down, trying to reach my spine. More leg pulling and stretching. An hour of this, with Stacy and mom chattering and me trying not to cry.

‘There is no way this is going to work,’ I thought. I wished again for a zap back to health and darkly considered the .38 nestled in my dresser.

“All right, get up and see how that feels.”

Yeah ok.

I sat up. No pain. Stretching is good.

I stood up. Nothing.

Mom burst into tears. Stacy stared. “Wow, you’re tall.”

For the first time in almost a year, I was standing up straight, tall, and walked with my arms swinging. My arms never swung when I walked with pain because I was too busy trying not to fall over. I took a tentative step forward. Pain, but it was almost like it was far away pain. I burst into tears.

Twenty-two sessions brought pain, tears, clenched fists, and victories. She worked my body until it was sore, until I was about to scream, until I could walk across the room with no problems. I did a series of increasingly difficult exercises twice a day for weeks and weeks. She pushed me to my limits and then kept pushing. Stacy discovered problems with my muscles and bodies that had probably been there for years, since my body partially shut down in the accident. She quite literally zapped the pain from my body with her hands.

I cancelled my fusion.

I cancelled all impending epidural injections.

I cancelled all of my prescriptions for pain.

The release from pain and a chance to be human again prompted me to change my life and stop waiting for tomorrow.

I got glasses. I can see now!

I went to a doctor and got on Prozac. No more anxiety attacks now!

I finished my book, a project I had been working on and dreaming of for years. Three agencies are considering it!

My marriage, my relationship, my job, and my joie de vivre have all improved and skyrocketed. You do not realize the fog you are operating in and the extreme difficulty of your daily existence until someone zaps you out of it and returns you to the person you are. Physical therapy was a last resort, something that probably would not work. It worked and it saved my life. I now am that annoying person who tells everyone my story and encourage them to try physical therapy. I know it’s not for everyone, but everyone should at least try. Surgery is not a light decision and I want people to try all the options before undergoing a life changing procedure.

I “graduated” from physical therapy the last week of October. I was about to head out to Florida on a trip with my parents, a fourteen-hour drive that would have been impossible six months ago. It was a bittersweet moment. She showed me some new techniques she had learned at a conference and we snickered about my blue skin from a hair dye job gone awry. I had no pain. We parted with a promise to keep my file open just in case. And I walked out of there straight, tall, and arms swinging.




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