Friday, November 3, 2017

Layers of Pain

I picture them as cobwebs­ — layer upon layer of cobwebs — binding my muscles, tying them to my bones, pinching sensitive nerves, but unlike cobwebs they are not diaphanous and fragile. These are bands of scar tissue, solid and persistent flesh, and I have them all over my body, palpable reminders of all the times I have misused my muscles over the years: the too-heavy load of books or groceries I just had to carry, the meetings that caused my neck and shoulders to tense up for an hour or more, the overly ambitious stretch in yoga class. 

Up until last year I wasn’t particularly aware of scar tissue as a problem. About a year ago, I started getting pains in my upper arms while doing weight-lifting routines. For a while, I backed off on intensity, thinking that these were injuries that would heal by themselves. I tried heat and ice. Finally, after about six months of no improvement, my personal trainer suggested that I go to a chiropractor, a new experience for me.

The chiropractor turned out to be a man in his early thirties, a serious athlete, who has had more than his share of serious injuries. When he asked me to raise my straight arms from my sides to the highest point possible over my head, he was horrified at the condition of my shoulders. I couldn’t get to the top position and I couldn’t straighten my arms. (Years ago I had had a bad injury to my left shoulder, described in this post, and later to my right, the most overworked side because I am right-handed.) Over a number sessions, this movement improved until he was fairly satisfied with it. But I still had the pain in my arms and rotating my arms forward in a circular motion hurt my shoulders. By now the pain was bad enough that it was waking me up at night.

To treat the scar tissue in my shoulders, arms and legs, the chiropractor used two approaches: myofascial release therapy (MFR), where he presses firmly into tight areas, and active release technique (ART), where he presses into a tight area while I move my arm across a prescribed path. This process ranges from mildly uncomfortable to quite painful, but the benefits have been substantial. I can now sleep at night without pain, though my shoulders and arms are sometimes stiff when I first get up. I am starting to lift weights again. My range of motion is much better but still needs work, especially the right shoulder and arm.

All complex human relationships, especially marriages and doctor-patient interactions, require a constant readjusting of expectations. The chiropractor and I had both anticipated that my situation would be resolved in a matter of weeks, months at the most. It has now been over a year. During that time, symptoms have come and gone. For a while, I had trigger thumb in my right thumb; it lasted for a couple of months, then went away. At one point I mysteriously injured a nerve in my left leg and was hobbling around for a while. We worked on the left leg and that got better too.

Why is all of this happening to me right now? Age is probably a factor; I am 71 now. Another possibility is that in 2016 I stopped taking Premarin, an estrogen supplement I had been happily using for 36 years. Changes in hormones can affect muscles and nerves so this transition may have turned a tolerable situation into one requiring treatment. In any case, I am grateful that these therapies are available to me. Ironically, insurance won’t pay for interventions that are actually restoring me but it would pay for pain medication, which I certainly want to avoid!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

How To Keep The Weight Off As You Get Older

One of the sad truths about aging is that you inevitably burn fewer calories than you did as a young person, even if you’re physically active, even if you eat a healthy diet. When you retire you may eat out more often and take more trips to foreign countries with delicious food, making the situation even worse.

At our house we have instituted a system of alternating big meals and small meals. A big meal is protein (often chicken or fish), vegetables, and maybe a starch plus a little fruit for dessert. A small meal is soup with a small piece of bread or a quarter of a frittata or a tuna melt, always accompanied by vegetable juice (bottled or homemade). We do three big and three small each week. On the remaining night we eat at a restaurant.

Lately we’ve been wanting to lose a few pounds so we’ve started a low food day every week or so, somewhat like the part-fasting diets that are popular now. Instead of fasting, we have the Mango Lassi with Anti-Cancer Spices for breakfast (plus coffee), the Pretty Good Almond BerryGreen Smoothie for lunch, and the usual kind of small meal for supper. After a few weeks we’ve lost a couple of pounds without too much pain.

The advantage of our system is that it is sustainable. With diets, you eventually go off the diet and the weight often comes right back. Our program incorporates enough foods we enjoy, including an occasional sweet dessert at a restaurant, so that we don’t feel deprived.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The New Cats

When our old cat Sadie Pearl died last year at almost 18 years of age, our 10-year-old, Rowan, was lonely and bored. My husband wanted to get another lady cat so we asked our handyman to be on the lookout for likely candidates at his farm, where most of our cats were born. Sometime in May, he started describing a litter of three kittens that were living there with their mother. Even though they were very young, he urged us to take one right away because he was afraid they might be killed by a predator. (Our cat Rowan was orphaned when his family disappeared under mysterious circumstances and he was adopted by the kind people at the farm – and later by us.)

We arrived at the vet with a beautiful little tiger and white kitten and the vet’s assistant, a cat expert, said, “It’s a boy.” However, she just happened to have a female kitten, a feral cat one week older than ours, that might be a suitable friend for him. So we ended up with Max and Bella. The picture of the cats when they were small illustrates their personalities: Max looks straight at you, ready to take on any challenge; Bella tilts her chin up dreamily, like a medieval saint awaiting guidance from Heaven.

During the first few days, I wasn’t sure that we should keep Bella. She seemed slow, almost lethargic, and her hygiene left something to be desired; her little face was often smudged with food. The vet’s assistant then explained that she was a litter of one (very rare) and had been living alone with her mother in a garage, essentially a sensory deprivation capsule. Max was born into the rich environment of a farm with other cats, horses, and cows, along with plants and farm buildings to explore. 

Max is not only masculine but a super-male: full of muscle and bravado. Smart and athletic, he is constantly seeking out new challenges for himself. All of our kittens have had to learn about gravity the hard way, by venturing under the railing around the second floor stairwell and falling to the landing about 10 feet below. For the others, once was enough, but Max has repeated the experience because he wanted to learn how to walk along the railing, a skill that none of our other cats ever mastered. 

For the first months of her life, Bella remained a kind of slow, dreamy moonchild of a cat but sometime after she was spayed she seemed to become more energetic and more focused. She and Max have always play-wrestled but now she sometimes chased him. Sometimes she tries to get Rowan to play with her, by rolling on her back in front of him and making little chirping noises. Usually, he considers this beneath him and walks away, though he sometimes play-wrestles with Max.

When the kittens first came, Rowan was horrified. He seemed to feel that these were not cats but alien beings introduced into his home. Over the next weeks, though, he came to enjoy watching their antics and gradually to interact with them directly. Sadie Pearl, his previous companion, had not been much of a role model in this respect. Like many lady cats, she was rather a diva. The new cats, though, are both friendly, playful, and easy-going, a welcome diversion for an older gentleman cat.