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When Multiple Doctors Can't Diagnose Your Chronic Back Pain

I am 22 years old, and I’ve been experiencing chronic back pain since I was about 17. At first, it wasn’t so severe that it affected my day-to-day life: my lower back would occasionally be sore from long days sitting in class and carrying around a backpack full of textbooks. It was normal – common – for teenagers to experience back pain, and didn’t indicate any serious problem. Nevertheless, the persistent pain and discomfort prompted me to get an X-ray done, and I was diagnosed with mild scoliosis. I immediately began physical therapy treatment for my pain, hoping it would soon disappear.

Fast forward five years, and my lower back pain is now constant and radiates up to my right shoulder and down the side of my right leg. It seems to affect every normal bodily function, from my breathing to my digestion to my concentration; things just aren’t working as well as they used to. I’ve had multiple blood tests done, as well as X-rays, an ultrasound, and an MRI. Aside from my iron-deficiency anemia and low B12 levels, none of these tests found anything wrong with my body. Even my scoliosis has been dismissed by my doctors because it is too mild to cause the level of pain I experience. As well as my own family doctor, I have consulted multiple doctors and nurse practitioners at walk-in clinics. I’ve been referred to a sports medicine expert and a rheumatologist, who were unable to find anything wrong with me. I’ve sought treatment from three different physical therapists, an acupuncturist, and a chiropractor – all providing some immediate relief but no long-term improvement. As a university student, it has been difficult to justify the costs of these treatments for years without seeing any effect on my pain in the long-term.

I’ve tried significantly improving my overall health, through changes to my diet, regular, vigorous exercise and giving up on certain extra-curricular activities to give myself more time to rest and relieve stress. But the only thing that truly relieves my pain is a combination of my prescription painkillers and muscle relaxants. The extreme drowsiness and inability to focus – main side-effects of these drugs – have affected my concentration at school and at work. The exhaustion that comes from dealing with pain all day means that I have little to no energy left for things I used to enjoy more frequently, such as going out with my friends.

In my last semester of my undergraduate degree, my life was going really well: I had a loving family, a close group of friends, and a very caring boyfriend. I’d received multiple job offers for after graduation, and I’d been accepted to my first choice for law school. I literally couldn’t have ask for anything more. And yet, I hit a low point in my physical and mental health.

Every other night I went to sleep in so much pain that it brought me to tears. Frustrated at not having a diagnosis for the cause of my pain, I broke down, wondering what was wrong with my body, questioning whether I was making it all up. Was I just not fit enough? Not healthy enough? Each day I alternated between trying to be drug-free and being on so many different painkillers that I was completely out of it at my job or during an exam. Though I used to be comfortable walking everywhere, I caught myself limping on my way to work because of the pain and tightness in my hips. Though I had tried to make my daily life as convenient as possible, it didn’t feel sustainable. Hopelessness was taking over. I kept wondering if I should just give up on my future plans for law school, or even drop out of my last semester as an undergrad. If I couldn’t handle this, how could I possibly succeed in the future?

I went back to my doctor again and again, trying to describe my symptoms so that she might miraculously discover the cause of my problems. She began suggesting that stress, anxiety, and other mental factors may be the root cause of my pain, since there was nothing physically wrong with me.

While it’s true that mental and physical health are linked, I know myself very well, and I know that the negative mental state I’d been in was a result of my constant physical suffering, and not the other way around. Now finished school with good prospects ahead of me, my stress levels are practically non-existent compared to when I was a student. And yet, surprise – my pain is still here. Just this past week, I had been sitting at my desk at work for less than 20 minutes when the pain became unbearable. I had to go to the washroom to hide my tears from my coworkers, before taking multiple doses of painkillers. This took the edge off after half an hour, but I was practically useless for the rest of the day because I was so out of it. More than the pain itself, the frustration of not being able to justify my unwellness to my colleagues was upsetting. If there was at least a concrete reason for my pain, I could explain why I was having a flare, why I was on heavy medication, why I might need to take a day off.

Accepting that I will have to live with this pain for the rest of my life has been difficult. Whenever it flares up, I imagine myself in the future – in law school, maintaining a social life, working a demanding job, maybe responsible for a family – and suddenly unable to handle my responsibilities because of my pain. It’s hard to appreciate all the positive things in my life when I’m constantly suffering inside. But I’ll end this post on a positive note: I am trying. I am trying to push through it all and achieve my goals, even if that means going at a slower pace so that I have time to take care of myself. And I am trying to have hope that one day things will improve, and the pain won’t take up so much space in my life and in my thoughts.

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Getty image by seb_ra