How Yoga became a tool for physical healing
If I wanted to, I could not have dreamt up a better timing and more perfect locations for this stunning and inspirational session. When Jacqueline asked to do a yoga session at the beach I just knew that this session had to happen at sunrise. It just happened to be during full moon as well and we absolutely had to do a second session at the beach to include the moon.
When I met Jacqueline and heard her story I absolutely had to share it with you - to say her story is inspirational is an understatement. She is a beautiful person inside and out and has overcome so much. Here she shares her story with us:
You had a spinal surgery recently. Do you mind telling us a little bit about the procedure and what you had to do to prepare for it?
I had a spinal cord stimulator put in. It’s a device used to treat pain. Thin “leads” or wires with paddles at the end are placed along your spine. These send signals to the nerves in your spine with the hope of interrupting the pain signals your body is sending. The wires are attached to a battery which is put under the skin in your lower back.
There was a lot I had to do to prepare for this surgery. I had to take education classes to learn how the device works, what would be involved in the surgery and what I would need to do after. I had to have a psychological evaluation to make sure I understood the surgery and the risks that come along with it. Finally, before the insurance company will pay for the permanent spinal cord stimulator you have to have a week-long trial stimulator. A doctor will put the leads (wires) into your spine using a needle but nothing is permanently implanted under your skin, only stitched and glued (with surgical glue, not krazy glue). If the trial stimulator is helpful they will go ahead and do the permanent one. There’s no point going through the surgery for the real one if it isn’t going to work so I’m grateful the doctors and insurance company require the one week trial.
What was the reason for this surgery?
I have Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS for short. Without going into too much detail it is a condition that effects the nerves and causes intense pain, typically in an affected limb. CRPS occurs after an injury or trauma to a limb, commonly after surgery, and causes chronic pain to the injured arm, leg, foot, etc. Normally you have pain after an injury and over time it heals and your body realizes there is no reason for it to hurt any more. With CRPS the injury heals but your brain never realizes it time for that area to stop hurting and continues to send pain signals to the nerves.
When I was younger I got into a car accident and tore the meniscus in my left knee. I had surgery to fix this but never got better and only felt more pain after. I was a senior in college, just before my 21st birthday and I started to have a lot of pain in my left leg and foot. Over the last 9 years this has spread to include my left arm, wrist and hand and even at times my right knee.
Tell us a little bit about the day your life changed and how old you were during the accident.
It wasn’t all at once. When I found out I tore my meniscus I thought it was pretty routine. I was glad I would be able to fit my surgery in before going back to school for my senior year so it wouldn’t interfere with the first semester. After the surgery when I continued to have pain it took months to find out what was going on. CRPS isn’t a common condition and there’s no test for it. The way it is diagnosed is by looking at a patients symptoms and ruling out other conditions.
However if I had to pick a day when my life changed I would say it was around February 2009. It took about 5 months and 7 doctors before I heard the term Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. It was mentioned by a doctor but wasn’t fully explained, I was only given some treatment options. I was still going to UNH so after that appointment I drove back to school and my boyfriend at the time and I looked it up on WebMD (something that isn’t always recommended). That was the day I read what the rest of my life would be like. I read about how painful CRPS is, that 20 years ago, people with CRPS would often kill themselves rather than live in pain and most depressingly that there is no cure, only treatments to manage the pain. Strangely enough I felt relieved and I’ll never forget my then boyfriend saying, “That’s really awful but at least now you know what’s wrong”. He was right. Before it was a mystery and even worse I thought it was in my head. At least now I had an answer, though it wasn’t one I wanted. It’s always better to know than not know and at least knowing what the condition was, meant I now knew things I could do to help the pain.
How did your life change after the accident?
It was my senior year at UNH so I was focused on the future: graduation, a career, law school, being on my own. I lost most of that. I had always been a really good student but my grades suffered that last year and I missed a lot of class as a result of traveling to doctors appointment or being in too much pain to sit in a cramped auditorium or concentrate on my work. After I graduated I didn’t go to law school like I planned or get a job as a social worker which was my backup plan. I moved home with my mom. My social life also changed a lot. I wasn’t able to go out with my friends all the time like I normally had or I would have to cancel plans at the last minute because I wasn’t feeling up to it. After a while people stop inviting you out. I had a few close, understanding friends and a really supportive boyfriend so I was fortunate. I wasn’t able to work for a while which was really hard and also depressing. I couldn’t sit or stand for a long period of time without a lot of pain and a lot of the medications I was taking made me really tired. Over time I found things I was able to do and learned to work within my limits. I’m hoping now with the stimulator I’ll be able to start working more.
Before you discovered this surgery what options did you have to treat your symptoms? Is this when you discovered the benefits of yoga?
Mostly my pain and symptoms were treated with medication. I’ve tried a lot of different types over the years. Nerve conditions and pain are really hard to treat and there aren’t really drugs specifically for nerves so it was about finding a combination that helped, which took a while. I’ve done different types of physical therapy. There was a more specialized type of PT that focused on the nerves which helped but I couldn’t afford the $30 copays twice a week for the visits. I tried to keep up with some of the exercises on my own. These were extremely helpful when I started to have pain in my arm and could be why my arm isn’t as bad as my leg.
A lot of the treatments for conditions like mine is to try to “interrupt” the pain signals your body is sending. This is what the spinal cord stimulator does but there are other ways of doing this too. From the beginning of my treatment I’ve been getting “nerve blocks” or procedures where medication is injected into the nerve hoping to interrupt those pain signals. These were done in my neck, spine, leg and knee. I couldn’t even count how many I’ve had done but going by the bills from the insurance company, I know there’s been a lot.
One of the more extreme methods were the 2 surgeries I had in 2010. I had a lot of nerve damage in my left leg and my doctor sent me to a surgeon who thought he could help. I had several nerves cut and burned. It helped in some ways. For example, before these surgeries I could not tolerate the pain from shaving my legs and it was a bit easier afterwards.
The last treatment option I’ve tried, which is somewhat controversial, is medical marijuana. I’m lucky enough to live in a state that offers it to people with chronic pain. I’ve find a vaporizer to work best and have a few different strains with low THC and high CBD. THC is what gives you that “high” feeling and CBD helps with pain so I can use marijuana to help with pain without feeling high. Of course, I still only use it when I’m at home for the night but that’s when it is the most helpful. All chronic pain patients have a very hard time sleeping. I can’t tell you how many times over the past 9 years that pain has kept me awake until 3 or 4 am. It’s hard for your body to feel better when you aren’t getting enough sleep so it turns into a vicious cycle. I use marijuana before I go to bed and it has made it much easier for me to fall asleep and sleep through the night. For that reason alone it’s been worth it.
I realized early on that a positive outlook was going to help me more than any medication or procedures. I’ve always tried to remain hopeful and positive and keep my spirits up. While I do rely heavily on medical interventions I’m also really open to natural and holistic remedies. About 5 years ago I started seeing a hypnotherapist to deal with pain and learned about mindfulness meditation. I must say it has been really helpful, especially when the pain is most intense and there’s nothing else to do. Last fall, after I got my medical marijuana card, I got back into the natural remedies and started meditating again. This is what led me to try yoga. I really liked yoga when I was in college but stopped doing it because I was afraid it would hurt me. But I made the decision that I would try it again and go slow, stopping if I started to feel pain. After practicing for a few weeks, to my surprise and happiness I found that I was feeling better and attributed this to yoga and meditation. I’ve always spoken with other CRPS patients who say yoga has helped with their pain as well.
How are you feeling today and how long did your recovery from surgery last?
Some days are better than others. I knew before my surgery (from the education classes I was required to take) that this surgery wouldn’t help 100%. I talked to other people with CRPS who have a stimulator and they all had different results. I have pain still but I think the surgery helped but I believe it was worth it and hopefully overtime it will start to feel even better.
The recovery from surgery wasn’t too bad. I was in the hospital overnight but went home the next morning. The first few days were pretty painful and I mostly just slept but by the 4th day I was going for short walks. However I was restricted from a lot of activity for 6 weeks while I healed, including yoga. I’ve started doing most things again, like yoga and kayaking but I’ve been told by the doctor that it can take up to 3 months to completely heal so I should still be a little cautious.
Tell us a little bit about what your plans are now after your recovery.
Well in the immediate future I will be taking a trip to Iceland! I love to travel and I’m excited to see how it will be now that I have the stimulator. I haven’t let CRPS stop me from traveling but I’ve had to make adjustments, like planning days or times where I’m resting. Hopefully I’ll have less of that on this trip.
I’m looking into getting certified to teach yoga. I would love to share my passion for yoga and all its benefits with other people. Hopefully I’ll be doing that sometime this fall or early winter. But for right now I’ll continue babysitting the 2 boys I watch while I continue to recover.
What do you see yourself doing in the future?
If this whole thing has taught me anything it’s that the future is never certain. I would like to work in a field helping people, which is actually what I’ve always wanted to do. Having CRPS has taught me a lot about myself and life and what’s really important. I don’t need the fancy career I once wanted and I don’t need a lot of money but I would like a job where I feel like I’m making a difference. Having dealt with a major health problem and the anxiety and depression that have come along with it, I would very much like to help other people in similar situations. Whether that is through yoga or meditation or working in the mental health field I’m not sure yet.