Tag Archives: aging

More fun with failing body parts

They say growing old ain’t for wimps. I’m here to tell you that middle age is no picnic, either. I keep seeing headlines declare,”Fifty is the New Thirty,” “Sixty is the New Forty.” Maybe. Thanks to better diets, better drugs, and plastic surgery (in some cases). Personally, I do not feel twenty years younger than my actual age. But, hey, twenty years ago I was an emotional basket case — or, at least, much more so than now. That’s all beside the point, though. Here’s the real story.

Earlier this year (like, last winter), I decided to take up crocheting. I used to know how, so I figured it would be a simple matter to refresh my memory. That part actually worked out as I figured, but I started running into an annoying problem. Part of my left hand would start going numb. Well, crap, what’s that all about? I got several lay diagnoses of carpal tunnel syndrome. My doctor even agreed that that was probably my problem. I started wearing a brace on my left wrist. And I put away my yarn and crochet hooks.

Fast forward to summer. I use a push mower to mow some parts of the yard, like the dogs’ enclosure, and around some of the trees. The engine on the mower doesn’t run as smoothly as it did when it was new (!), and I began to notice the vibration was causing my right hand to go numb. So I got a brace for that wrist and wore it at night, because with both wrists immobilized, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do at work, or around the house — except look pitiful.

Then I developed “trigger finger.” At first it was just annoying, then it got painful, and interfered with writing, typing, and life in general. Treatment consisted of “resting the joint by splinting the finger.” Oh, joy. I decided to design my own splint — one I could take off when I needed to wash my hands. I used part of an old glove finger, with duck tape around it for some rigidity, followed by stretch wrap.

So I decided to add a little humor to the situation.

So I decided to add a little humor to the situation.

And I wore that, or others like it, off and on (mostly on) for most of September and October. I learned how to type around it, how to grip a pen with two fingers, and was heartily tired of it in short order.

Meanwhile, my left hand, not wanting to be left out (haha, a pun!), developed a mass the size of a ball bearing at the base of my thumb. I figured it was a ganglion cyst. I’ve had trouble with those in the past.

So. Monday of this week, I went to the VA Health Center in Temple, where I had an appointment for a consult with the orthopedic surgery department (Thank heaven for VA health care, by the way.) to discuss what to do about my thumb. I was all for surgically removing the offending mass, and possibly fixing my “angry birds finger” at some other opportunity. Imagine my surprise when the specialist said, “Oh, no, that’s not a cyst. It’s another trigger finger. Trigger thumb to be precise. And we can take care of both those for you right now.”

I had never had a steroid injection of any kind before, so I had no idea what manner of torture I was in for. Not once, but twice. Holy crap! that hurt!

The specialist and two observers were impressed with how still I kept my hands while my face contorted in agony. I think something in my reptile brain must have told me how much worse the pain would be if I moved, and somehow kept my arms relaxed.

My hands are still a bit sore, and stiff, but so much better than they were. And I found out that the ongoing numbness and tingling in the outside edge of my left hand is not related to carpal tunnel. Oh, no, the other large nerve that runs into the hand is being pinched in my elbow. 

So, I can go back to crocheting, if I don’t bend my elbow. That should be interesting. I’m telling you, getting old is an adventure!

This Adventure with my Back

I’ll soon know whether there will probably be more back surgery in my future. My appointment with the VA neurosurgeon is this week. Chances are, being a surgeon, he’ll be all for doing surgery. On the other hand, neurosurgeons tend to be on the conservative side when it comes to treating back problems. I think they know they’ll always have work, whether they operate on one more person today or not. That and they probably figure that sooner or later, they’ll get you under the knife – that is if your back looks like mine.

I’ve read some personal experience stories by people who have similar back conditions, some of whom believe having surgery was the worst decision they ever made, and others calling surgery a life-saver. It comes down to individual differences, sometimes the abilities of the surgeon, too, but, from what I read, you kind of get out of it what you put into it. If you do the work prescribed by the surgeon and the physical therapists, and give the process enough time, you’ll have a better outcome than if you sit around in shock because all your pain didn’t miraculously vanish the moment you came out from anesthesia.

All business about surgery aside, living with a painful, but “invisible” condition is a drag. There’s no percentage in trying to put on a good show or keep up with the activity levels of everyone around you. You end up three times as exhausted as a normal person doing the same thing. And everyone expects you to maintain the pace indefinitely. Or they get annoyed that you’re dropping your end of the load, without realizing or caring just how long ago you may have needed to put that load down for good. I’ve concluded that it’s just better to let everyone down right from the start and grow a thick enough skin (or shell) to deal with the invective about not pulling your weight.

So much for not indulging in a whine festival.

Pain management becomes your most important daily activity or you just get overwhelmed. I walk. I had been doing some exercises to strengthen my leg and core muscles, and for a while, those helped. But I’d still get stiff after only short periods of sitting or standing. I started taking the Puppy to a local park with a one mile walking path so I could know for sure that I was walking at least that one mile. After a few trips, we’d walk almost all the way around, then turn around and go back, to make it nearly two miles. I did it that way to avoid walking past the car. I knew Ramses would want to get in the car – he wants to get in every car we pass – and that not getting in the car, but walking away from it again when I was getting tired would make me even more tired. So I fooled us both.

But now that it’s started to get warm (read scalding hot) here, and that park doesn’t open until 8:00 a.m., I’ve found another park with a nice walking path and plenty of shade where I can go much earlier in the mornings. I kind of have to guess about distance, but I think I’m still doing close to two miles. And I’ve started going every morning. I’ve had to shuffle my schedule a little bit, but have decided that this is a priority. For one thing, the Puppy is somewhat better behaved after he’s had some exercise and fresh air. I say “somewhat” because nothing can change the fact that he’s a Basenji, and consistently well behaved is just not what they do.

The difference in how I feel after I get back from that walk is noticeable. When I get out of the shower I take when I get home, I don’t feel any pain anywhere. I want to jump up and down – which would not be wise, but still. The pain-free window doesn’t last, of course, but I don’t stiffen up as quickly, even if I sit at the computer for a while. Sometimes I keep writing longer than I should, but considering how often I can’t finish a piece because I start feeling so broken that I can’t think of what I’m trying to say, I have to try to find some balance.

I’m not losing sleep, yet, over the outcome of this appointment with the neurosurgeon. I may not wait long to make a decision about whether to have surgery or not, but I do intend to wait until I know the outcome of my VA disability claim before I schedule anything. Once I have that in place, if I have surgery, I’ll have some income to carry me through my recovery if I end up missing several weeks of work. It’s the waiting that’s so annoying. I’ve been waiting since January for this neurosurgeon appointment, and I’ve been waiting since last June for my disability claim to be processed. I’m ready for everything to be resolved, questions answered, and some kind of path forward in front of me.

The Bad Back Blues

I’ve had lapses before. Most of us go through the occasional “bad patch,” where we just don’t get as much done, or don’t enjoy what we’re doing as much, or whatever. I haven’t just been ignoring my blogs. I haven’t been writing much of anything. No book reviews – even though I’ve read some excellent books recently. I haven’t posted anything to Twitter or Facebook in a while. I haven’t been drawing or making tiny planets and dragons, either. This isn’t writer’s block. It’s everything block. Sometimes being human means there will be lapses.

Last May (by way of explanation) I learned that I qualified for Veteran’s Administration (VA) health care, since I only have a piddly part time job and no health insurance. I figured it was time to see what shape my back was in – if it had deteriorated any or stayed much the same after the surgery I had 12 years ago to repair a couple of herniated discs and alleviate the pinched nerves that had been making me miserable for the previous four or five years.

First I had to get through the basic physical checks – finding that my cholesterol was over 300 was pretty alarming – and deal with those results. It wasn’t until January that I asked about having my lower back x-rayed. I didn’t get to see the x-rays. I hate that. People who take x-rays (radiology technicians) aren’t the same ones who interpret the results – x-rays often go someplace far away to be “read” by the MD radiologists – so the techs can’t legally look at the films with the patient. That would be “practicing medicine.” That is so dumb. Although I can sympathize with someone not wanting to get slapped with a law suit over it, it still aggravates the crap out of me. Because the radiologists in their splendid isolation will never see the patients at all. How tidy.

But I digress.

My doctor was concerned enough by the results of the x-ray to send me for MRI scans. I, too, had a copy of the radiologist’s report from the x-rays, and I had to look up an unfamiliar term – listhesis. Normally part of a larger term – spondylolisthesis – this jawbreaker describes a condition where a vertebra is out of line with the ones above and/or below it. It may be “level 1,” with an offset of up to ¼ inch, up to “level 5,” which indicates that it has fallen off the edge and is basically no longer part of the parade. The pictures of x-rays of those conditions on the Wikipedia page made me cringe. No wonder my back hurts. No wonder I can feel odd slippings and slidings in my low back, and things that go “clunk” when I move certain ways. No wonder it feels like something is protruding slightly when I put my hand on that part of my back. It literally is. And I have only the level 1 condition.

The last time I was in my doctor’s office, she was able to call up the MRI images on her computer, and I was finally able to see for myself. I almost wish I hadn’t looked. Aside from the lower-most vertebra looking like it’s been shoved backwards out of line with the ones above it, the last two inter-vertebral discs seem to have gone missing. I was expecting some deterioration in the past 12 years, but not that much. I have to wonder what it will look like in another 12 years. And what other activities I’ll have to put on the “can’t do anymore” list.

What really depresses me is the fact that all this happened without me having to “do” much of anything over the past 12 years to help it along. It’s true I didn’t always heed my mother’s command to “stand up straight” when I was a teenager. It’s true I had mild scoliosis, along with a slight leg length discrepancy, and didn’t know it until I was 30 years old. It’s also true that I had some highly physical jobs when I was younger. When I was in the Air Force, working on the flight line, I used to push and pull some massive equipment from one spot to another – there just wasn’t always time to wait for the “tug” to come move it for me. And at the Fort Worth Zoo, I was often called on to help collect all the barrels of animal waste from all the other mammal department stations and empty them into the back of a dump truck. If you imagine a 50 gallon trash barrel of rhino crap might be heavy, picture five or six. But that was all years before I needed surgery, although I strongly suspect it all contributed to my present dilemma. Especially all that marching in Basic Training and tech school.

But not everyone who has physical jobs like that ends up like me, do they? I know other women who worked on the flight line when I did who don’t have train wrecks in their lower backs. And I’ve never been in a car accident, aside from a couple of minor fender-benders. I haven’t been jumping off buildings or falling off horses, or riding bulls. I must just have a crappy back to begin with.

That’s the kind of funk I’ve been in for the past couple of months. I’m waiting now for an appointment with a neurosurgeon to find out if I’m going to need another surgery and what kind of outcome I might expect from it.

Why I never want the learning curve to go flat

I love learning new things, and sometimes re-learning old ones. I’d like nothing better than to go back to school full time and take a bunch of math classes, and not let math kick me in the butt this time. I’d take more chemistry, and biochem, and organic chem, and extraterrestrial chem. And I’d take every art history and art appreciation course I could find; and anthropology and philosophy and physics. And languages. I’d get a PhD or three. Just for fun.

And I want to read almost every book that comes out, especially if it’s about science. I know I’ll never get through even half of them, but I want to give it a shot. I never want to stop putting new knowledge into my brain. And I never want to get complacent about what I already know. And so I’ll never turn into my dad.

I know a lot of people who think I’m nuts for wanting to go back to school — for even considering it. That doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t bother me that a lot of people don’t like to read — who think they had to do too much reading when they were in school and they’re done with that. That’s a completely legitimate reason not to do something. That’s how I feel about ironing — that I did enough ironing as a kid in school ironing my uniform blouses, and later in the Air Force ironing everything that wasn’t tied down. Unfortunately, I have to iron some of the shirts I wear to work now because I no longer have a job where I can wear jeans and tee-shirts, darn it. I am working on finding shirts that don’t require as much ironing as some that I have. I would gladly stop completely, so I can relate to anyone who doesn’t want to do something that they find unpleasant.

But I watched my dad slowly lose his mind, and I don’t want that to happen to me. He wanted to live to be 100, and he got pretty damn close. But he thought he could do it just sitting on the couch watching re-runs of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” and claiming he was “too old” for other activities or learning new things.

I will not will not will not let that happen to me. And so I’ve already started back to school — part-time — and I’ve already taken one math class. In summer school. One whole semester in five weeks. I made a “B” dammit! I’ve never made that high a grade in math in my life, and I’m pretty frakking proud of it. And last night at work when a student asked me for some help with one of her algebra problems, I was able to show her a function she could use on her graphing calculator that she didn’t know about. Two months ago I could use a graphing calculator to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, and waste everything else it is capable of. Now I know a few more of those uses. But there are a lot more I have yet to discover.

And I’m just like that calculator.

It's the simple things…

Magic Potions

I’ve mentioned elsewhere my enjoyment of cold, flavored coffee. And that when the occasion warrants, I’ll microwave it and drink it hot. It’s no big deal, but it is something I still look forward to every morning. It’s not just a necessary starter fluid for my brain, it’s a treat. I like treats.

In really cold weather I used to add hot chocolate mix to my coffee, or drink it plain. Lots of hot chocolate. But since I’ve lost my tolerance for massive quantities of chocolate, and since I seem to be more susceptible to cold in the post-menopausal world I now live in, I’ve had to find an alternative hot beverage. Of course there’s always more coffee, and straight de-caf for later in the day, but one of my new co-workers kept saying, “drink hot tea.” I’ve never been a big hot tea drinker, but that’s more about me always being easily overheated than anything else. I remembered a few teas that I liked — even hot — and, of course, they were “flavored” teas. (The common term is “herbal” tea.) I once found a variety in Austin called Mint Magic that I liked, but couldn’t find it in any local stores, so I had my friend, Tresha, bring me a couple of boxes when we met in Houston a few weeks ago to go to the Museum on Natural Science (my favorite place on the planet — have I mentioned that?). Then I discovered that Coffemate had a new flavor called Honey Vanilla Creme, which goes perfectly with the mint tea and my other favorite flavor, Sleepytime Green Tea. Yum. These are now my evening treats.

Magic Lotions

Cold weather tends to bring on a rash of dry skin, and in the afore-mentioned post-menopausal world where I now live, the cold feels colder and the dry feels dryer. Woe is me. I could foresee gallons of body lotion in my future. But wait. When I was living in Kentucky and going to a massage therapist for my aching back, she told me “use oil.” It worked in Kentucky (where it was a bit colder than in central Texas), but was always a bit too much for winters here — until now. It’s not necessary to go out and spend a lot of money on fancy body oils — baby oil works fine. And there’s a baby oil gel that’s even better. It’s even possible to add some fragrance, if you’re like me and have a few little vials of “essential oil.” That’s the stuff aromatherapists use to make their magic mood modifiers. I just like to wear it. The nice thing about using plain baby oil gel is that I can use different fragrances or none at all, and still take care of the dry itchy skin. I just put a drop of patchouli, gardenia, or Egyptian musk oil in the palm of my hand, and then a glob of the baby oil gel. Another treat, this time for my nose.

Magic Motions

I almost can’t remember a winter when I didn’t get up in the mornings with stiff joints and some back pain. Bleah. No likee. I found ways to alleviate some of the pain, and have written about those here. I still have a lot of motivation to keep up with the bicycle crunches several nights a week. If I take a break of longer than two or three nights, I wake up more often during the night, and I have the creaky back in the morning. So over the months since I started doing them, I’ve kept up with at least two sets of 50 crunches before I go to sleep. I do some other stretches and whatnot during the day when I’m upright, and now I’m a little less flabby than I was when I moved back down here from Kentucky. And this is a treat for my ego. But let me tell you, the real treat is when I bend over to open The Puppy’s crate in the mornings and my back no longer starts screaming “NNNOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” It puts a whole new flavor on the day.

Confessions of a chocaholic…

I will be the first to admit I have some bad habits. Okay, a lot of bad habits. And many of them would fall into the “not-good-for-me” category. But I have made some improvements. It has taken me more than fifty years, but that just proves that it’s never too late. And I still have a long way to go, so I’d better live another forty or so, at least.

For starters, there’s the chocolate thing. Now (NOW they tell us) a little bit of chocolate is not a bad thing, at least not as bad as it used to be. And at least not as long as it’s dark chocolate. Nice for me, I love dark chocolate. But there are some chocolates that I have always been prone to overdo. Like Oreos. M&Ms. Kisses. And I got away with it for a long time, with only some extra poundage to show for it. Then, not long ago, those little binges started making me feel absolutely awful. Stomach pain, pounding head, other symptoms I won’t describe. Ugh. Had to stop. Fortunately darker chocolate in smaller doses will make me feel the chocolate happy without the chocolate sick. Small victory. (And I lost some weight.)

Grocery shopping. I hate it with a purple passion. I do all the grocery shopping for the household. It is my personal hell on earth. I hate having to go to a new store, or one on another side of town. I need to go where I know where everything is so I can make my list and zoom through and get it the frak over with as fast as possible. And I have to make that list — and I have to be a little hungry when I go, so I’ll actually throw enough food in the cart to last more than a few days. Because the last thing I want to do is have to turn around and go grocery shopping again tomorrow.

Obviously with such deviant grocery shopping habits, I also have deviant eating habits. I like convenience foods and comfort foods, and convenient comfort foods best of all. And I don’t like to cook. But my recent bout of prolonged joblessness forced me to get more creative with meal components, because they were cheaper than buying all the pre-packaged stuff I normally came home with. For instance, real potatoes can be mashed or baked or cut up and roasted or pan fried or a bunch of other things. Not that I didn’t know that; I just never wanted to do the work involved until I was forced to. Well, it was more than that, really. Working in the kitchen makes my back hurt. Or it used to. A lot.

Chronic pain isn’t that conducive to forming good habits. It tends to make a person cranky and depressed. And then the cranky depression becomes another bad habit and it all seems so overwhelming and way too much to climb out from under. I estimate it has taken me close to fifteen years. Even after back surgery ten years ago to save me from disc damage and nerve damage that could have put me in a wheelchair, I continued to have back and leg pain that I thought would never completely go  away. By accident I discovered that taking an antihistamine for a fire ant bite also helped my back pain. Then I read something about B-vitamins and nerve health and I started taking supplements, which also helped. Then I read that doing five minutes of bicycle crunches every day is a great way to get and stay in shape. Ha. Ha. I decided to try that. I lasted about twenty seconds.

But I decided that twenty seconds a day could eventually turn into five minutes, so I kept at it. I’m not trying to time myself any more, because I do my crunches after I get in bed at night. So much easier on my back than the hard floor. So I started doing just ten at a time (that’s ten right-left repetitions), and now I’m up to forty. And I can do two sets of those forty. And most of the time I have no pain. That’s huge. And that’s why I think there’s some hope for me to improve on some of my other bad habits — and why I don’t ever intend to try to make myself give up chocolate completely. Because a good dog deserves a treat.