All week I’ve been in unbelievable pain. My hip and lower back were acting up again. It’s something that has always bothered me and it has gotten worse with age.
I always assumed the root cause was something that was my fault. This was what I was told by various medical professionals. It was my fault. I needed to do things differently. I needed to work on my core strength. I needed to stretch better after workouts.
Except no matter what strengthening or stretches I did, it never seemed to get better.
Recently, a good friend asked if I had ever tried physical therapy for my hip and lower back pain. No, I said. I hadn’t. No doctor had ever suggested it and it had never occurred to me as something that might help.
I was definitely willing to give it a shot, though. I asked my doctor for a referral and had my first PT appointment last week. It went well. I liked the woman I was assigned — let’s call her Casey — and she did a far more thorough examination than I’d ever before received for this problem.
I felt taken seriously, not blamed. I was excited.
It’s possible this excitement is what led to my burst of energy and motivation last weekend. I did All the Things and ignored it when I started to feel the horribly familiar beginnings of my pain flaring up. (Food Prep Day!)
A flare-up always starts as an ache in my left hip joint. Shortly afterward, the muscles towards the top of my left butt cheek will start to feel inflamed. The pain then worsens and creeps up and to the right, until, at it’s worst, my lower back on the left side hurts so badly that I can’t put weight on my left foot.
I can keep going if I move slowly and am careful, and sometimes that’s what I have to do because there are things (laundry, dishes, grocery shopping) that simply must get done.
This past weekend, though, I didn’t have to do as much as I did in such a short time span. There wasn’t any specific need for me to continue going after I felt the familiar pain beginning.
I was stubborn. I had things I wanted to get done and I was frustrated to not be able to do them. I got angry at my pain and I tried to bully my body into doing what I wanted it to.
Unsurprisingly, this did not end well. Yes, I got everything done, but the result was the pain spreading through my right side and down my right leg for the first time in my life, and reaching an intensity I hope to never experience again. (A Day of Agonizing Pain, Blinding Pain)
I limped through the week, quite literally. Someone suggested going to the doctor. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me. My experiences in the past have not been good. They have gone something like this:
“Doctor, I’m in a lot of pain.”
“Oh? What do you think caused it?”
“I did a lot of things the other day that I know make me hurt like this.”
“Ah. Well, that’s something that can happen to people, particularly as they age. Can you space out your tasks more in the future, or try to get your kids and spouse to help you more around the house?”
So, no, I did not think of going to the doctor. (Note to new readers: I’m single and don’t have kids, so the “get the kids and spouse to do more” thing is always particularly infuriating.)
My next appointment with Casey was Friday, which was yesterday. I made it through the week and went to see her. She looked me over, as she had the previous time. She noted, as she had previously and as everyone who has examined me for this pain always has, that my right hip was slightly higher than my left.
This is, I have always been told, because I tend to jut my hip out the left while standing and to hunch over to my right when seated. I have been told by many to try to do otherwise, but it requires a degree of focus and intent that is difficult to maintain with any consistency.
I’ve always assumed the correct core strengthening work would make things easier, and blamed myself for my pain.
Really, in every way, I’ve always assumed it was my fault, these habits that lead to my right hip being out of whack and my body out of alignment, and the pain that results from it.
Casey, however, looked at me thoughtfully and asked if anyone had ever measured my legs.
“Measured? My legs?” I asked her this slowly, not sure I was hearing her right. No, nobody has ever measured my legs. That’s a thing?
Yes, in fact, that’s a thing. Casey asked me to lie down on the table in the exam room and she carefully measured my right leg. She then measured my left leg.
She looked at me quizzically, then measured my left leg again. She told me I could sit up.
She then informed me that my left leg is almost an inch shorter than my right.
“Hang on,” she said, and went running out of the room. A second later, she returned with what looked like a thin slab of wood in her hand. It was rounded on one side. “I just want to try something,” she said. “Let’s put this in your left shoe and see how it feels.”
So, we did. I inserted the little slab into my shoe, the rounded side fitting perfectly against the heel. I put my shoe back on, then stood up and cautiously took a step away from the table.
For the first time in a week, I was able to take a few steps without pain. I walked back and forth across the room in astonishment. It felt odd but in an amazing way. It felt right.
Casey opened the door and asked me to walk down the hall away from her. She watched as I walked and noted that my shoulders were even. I realized she was right. As I walked I could feel my shoulders falling into place and the muscles of my back loosening. My neck felt centered on my body rather than feeling pulled over to the left side. It wasn’t at all a struggle to maintain good posture and proper alignment.
I got to the end of the hall and turned towards Casey with tears in my eyes. “It doesn’t hurt,” I told her. “I’m able to walk without anything hurting.” I wiped my eyes, embarrassed that I was about to start weeping with relief.
“Wait, I have another idea,” she said, as she ducked into one of the other exam rooms lining the long hallway. She emerged with a huge full-length mirror mounted on wheels rolling behind her. She positioned it so I would be able to see myself walking towards her.
She asked me to take the wooden slab I was using as a lift out of my shoe, and to walk towards the mirror. I did, though I thought I knew what I would see.
My left shoulder hunches towards my ear while my right falls visibly lower. This pushes my head slightly off-center, and as a result, my chin is positioned above my left clavicle. This has always been the case. I’m used to seeing myself this way.
I had always been told that being a lefty means I ignore my right side more than I should, and the neck and shoulder muscles on the left are overused and tight as a result. Yet every attempt at upper body strengthening I ever made resulted in extreme neck and shoulder pain on the left. At it’s worst I would lose the use of my arms and hands for a while until the inflammation calmed down. (Body Image Musings)
So, what I saw in the mirror wasn’t surprising. That is, not until I started walking. I had never before seen what I look like as I walk.
My hips were definitely uneven. My stride on the right was slightly longer than the left.
My muscles were being used unevenly. My whole body was hunched over toward the left to compensate for the shorter leg.
Casey then ordered me back down to the end of the hall and requested I put the lift back into my shoe. I did, and once again, I faced the mirror and walked towards it.
My shoulders were even and my head centered between them. I could see my neck, whereas previously I couldn’t. I barely recognized myself.
My stride was even and sure. My head was held high. And the pain and stiffness in my hips, back, shoulders and neck were miraculously gone.
Casey and I have another appointment scheduled for next Wednesday. She asked me to wear the lift as much as possible between now and then to see how things felt. I did not object to this in any way.
Today is Saturday. It is currently around noon. I have been wearing shoes almost all the time since my appointment, even while at home. When I took them off to shower and get dressed, it felt awkward and horrible and I couldn’t wait to have the lift under my left foot again. Even while standing still and reaching for something, I can feel the difference in how my body’s muscles are used with the lift under my left foot versus without it.
I’ve noticed all the ways in which I’ve normalized bracing myself against pain. Bending down for any reason requires straightening back up afterward. I’m used to doing this slowly and carefully because of the pain it causes.
Except suddenly, the pain is not there.
Even something as simple as washing my hands is revelatory. When I pull my hands back from the sink, towards myself, I tense up and grit my teeth, knowing I am about to experience a sharp flash of pain in my lower back.
Except now, I don’t.
There is still a long road ahead. There are years of muscles being used in odd ways that will need to be made up for.
But holy shit, folks. I think I might actually be on a productive path to better overall health.