Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Working My Last Nerve

I used to wonder if "pinched nerve" was a real thing. It's so vague, the type of diagnosis a malingerer would use. There's no test for it; you just have to take their word. I confess, I might have rolled my eyes.

Then I got one.

The past nine or ten days have been pretty rough. My doc thinks a muscle spasm in my shoulder is compressing a nerve where it emerges from my cervical spine. Pain begins in my neck and radiates down my right shoulder, bicep and forearm, leaving my fingers (particularly my thumb) numb and tingly. At best, it feels like someone punching me hard in the arm. At worst, if feels like someone repeatedly stabbing my funny bone with a screwdriver.

One interesting/frustrating aspect of the condition is that, with a regular ol' physical injury, there's often some position or posture that feels better than others. You can stretch out the limb or hold it over your head to get some relief. Because this is more of a phantom pain situation--my arm wasn't really caught in a steel rolling mill, it only feels like it was--there's not usually much I can do to make it feel better. This is a fascinating phenomenon to observe and consider at 3 a.m.

I didn't sleep well for several nights in a row because it hurt too much to lie down. Instead, I sort of passed out propped up by pillows in a comfy chair. Now with the help of powerful prescription narcotics (I told my daughters I look forward to them surprising me on a future episode of "Intervention"), I've actually slept through most of two nights in my own bed. As all new parents know, sleep makes a huge difference to quality of life.

The numbness in my fingers makes handwriting and drawing feel like threading a needle wearing ski gloves. I can type, but until recently couldn't bear to sit at my office desk long enough to get any work done. Last week was lost; this week I'm back in the saddle, interspersed with weeping and naps. Luckily, my left hand is facile enough to pick up some of the slack.

In the previous blog post I wrote about the fine time I had last Saturday doing a panel at a local book festival. That was true, I did have fun; what I neglected to mention was the part where my right arm was ripped off by an orc. Yesterday I posted some photos of the event shot by my wife Karen. She took several more, and we only realized later that if you crop them to focus solely on me, they provide a funny portrait of a man trying and failing to hold it together:

Forearm resting on the table, lookin' good. Authorial. Brian in 'da house.

Ah, the two-handed chin lean. Nice and casual change-up. Still fooling everyone.
I'll just prop this useless ham shank up on the empty chair next to me and slouch. Seems to help for a while....
Maybe it'll loosen up if I shake it around a little.... Nope.

I see your mouth moving and hear words coming out, but have no idea what you're saying.

Oh sweet Jesus, take me now.

I've seen several public appeals in recent months from starving cartoonists asking for help covering their medical expenses. I'm not one of them and this isn't one of those. Our health insurance is very good--to date, all my exams, x-rays and prescriptions have cost me $20 out of pocket. I'm not especially looking for sympathy. Karen is living up to the "sickness and health" clause of our marriage contract admirably, dispensing "Oh poor baby"s as required. In any big-picture perspective, my problems are minor and I seem to be healing.

So why blog about it? Partly because I've always shared how my life is going, and it looks like my life in late September and early October is going to go a lot like this. Partly to explain why my already-sketchy Internet presence will be light for a while. And partly because it's a little disconcerting to be reminded I'm just bones and blood and meat that occasionally breaks down. Like everybody else.

Sigh. Mortality, man. It's a tough gig.


Mike said...

Try a stand-up desk. I have a shoulder-arm-neck issue that responds well to working standing up. After a few weeks of this, however, my sciatica-like-thingie kicks in and drives me to sit back down. I understand there are desks you can get that adjust up and down quite readily, but my wallet-thingie won't allow such fripperies.

Still, it works if you don't have both issues to contend with. Dave Kellett built a lovely desk to get over a posture issue. He seems to have taken down the post on his own blog, but the desk can be seen here:

Brian Fies said...

Mike, thanks. Ergonomics is definitely part of my problem and solution. I remember when that Kellett piece was posted and thought it was pretty interesting at the time. I'm also looking at some exotic types of chairs. I'm getting good advice both here and on Facebook, and it's all appreciated.

karen M. said...

Brian, I am actually a trained ergonomist. If you think I can help, I'd be glad to.

Brian Fies said...

Karen, thanks, I may well take you up on that. First things first: get my arm reattached to my body, then figure out how to use it correctly. Much appreciated.