Tuesday, April 6, 2010

I Feel Bad About My Neck

Sometime during the sturm und drang of the fall — between worrying about and nursing sick cats and kittens, doing the continuous ringworm plague housecleaning, feeling nervous about being unemployed for too long, and sharing my husband's own job anxieties —something happened to my neck. I developed a sharp pain that stretched from the top of my left shoulder to the base of my skull.

It hurt. A lot, at times. I'm not sure when it began, because I did my best to ignore it. I wasn't sure what it was. But doing sit-ups and planks in my strength-training classes often made it worse, and I often woke up the next day with headaches after particularly tough workouts. I finally paid more attention to my instructor's loud, repetitive nagging, improved my form, and the headaches went away. But the neck pain persisted.

In the fall and winter, when the pain was at its worst, I had no time for treatment — surely a long round of twice-weekly of physical therapy plus daily exercises. I've been through it before. So I just kept going, stuffing an extra pillow under my head so I wouldn't wake up too often from the pain at night. Doing lots of weird-looking stretches before strength-training classes, until the woman who works out next to me kept noticing, and told me to see my doctor.

Last week, I did. She had no idea what it was, but suggested that, since it has been dragging on for many months, it probably wasn't going away anytime soon. "It's probably related to your other neck problems. Maybe a slipped disc. Probably age-related." She order eight physical therapy visits. "If that doesn't work, we'll talk about shots." I went to the first session yesterday.

I stunned my physical therapist when I told her that my current bed pillow was uncomfortable but, since I'd paid $139 for it, I didn't want to replace it unless she could advise me on exactly what to get. When she was able to speak again, she told me that she had never spent more than $20 for a pillow in her life. Or heard of a pillow costing much beyond that. Said she didn't know a lot about pillows.

She is young. While she was poking and prodding my neck, I gave her a brief introduction to the upscale bed-pillow retail category, concluding with heirloom eiderdowns from Cuddledown that start at $2,299 and go up to $5,999 (yes, for a pillow). I also mentioned noisy, crunchy-granola buckwheat-hull pillows, which she'd never heard of, either. She said that I should just try sticking a rolled-up towel under my neck when I'm reading or sleeping. And if that worked, I might try a contour pillow, which I guess is made out of some kind of crappy orthopedic foam. Since white Siberian down from pedigreed, blue-blood geese has failed me, the low-tech solution couldn't be much worse.

She said that my problem is just a very tight muscle. She said some of us carry our tension in our necks and shoulders, and sometimes we can't let go. (Tense? ME?) She handed me a list of stretches just like the ones I do all the time, and said we'd meet for seven more sessions of deep-tissue massage, traction, and more stretching. Then we'd see if I needed more. She also recommended that I schedule a few massages, an intriguing luxury I've never experienced.

I'm game. I reported my diagnosis to my friend on the next mat at my gym. She said, "Buddhists believe that we store not only tension, but unexpressed anger in our shoulders and necks. Do you have any unexpressed anger?"

Hmm. What unexpressed anger did I store in my left shoulder last fall? I'd say that worry and fear were my signature moods last fall. Anger is a rare emotion for me; I only get really angry every so often.

I guess I was mad about the ringworm plague, and it would have felt stupid to vent at microscopic mold spores, not that I ever knew exactly where they were. Plus yelling upsets the cats.

Upon soul-searching, my conclusion is that my neck just hurts — often painfully enough to make me mad! It's not exactly a Freudian unraveling of the depths my psyche. But, hey, my treatment doesn't require analysis, just a lot of nasty pummeling and poking around the outside of my head.

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