My trip to cotton wool world

The problem started on Sunday morning. My back felt a little stiff, but not unusually so given the weather. The day continued in a relaxed and pleasant way, with coffee, sunshine, and then some moderately satisfying games of Team Fortress 2.

At 7pm, I went to get up off the couch and get a drink, and realized that something was badly wrong. My back was sore and stiff. I used the heat pad for a while, took some aspirin, and had an early night.

Around 2 or 3 in the morning, I woke up. I needed the bathroom. I remember when I was younger, I had a camel-like ability to drink lots, then go for a long time without using the bathroom. These days, I can’t seem to sleep unless my bladder is completely empty.

I swung my legs out of the bed, and searing pain shot through my body. I tried to stand, and it got worse. I decided that standing erect was overrated, and affected a homo habilis stagger for my trip to the bathroom.

As I engaged in joyless micturition, a diffuse pain spread up and down my back. I leaned forward, gasping slightly, and put some of my weight on the cabinet above the lavatory. Finally, the deed was done, and it was time to make my way back to bed. I turned, clenched my jaw against the stabbing pain, and began the journey.

The bathroom seemed to have become rather larger than I remembered it, and was gently spinning around me. As I reached the doorway, pain shot through me and I collapsed to my knees with a gasp. Everything seemed to be turning pale white, and it felt as though I was packed in cotton wool. I could hear movement from the bedroom, but it was a long way away and very muffled. I began to hear a ringing noise in my ears.

I realized I was moments away from unconsciousness, and wondered why. I tried breathing deeply, in case that would help get more oxygen to the brain. Everything seemed to be happening very slowly. Someone was grasping my shoulder and one of my arms. I felt a wave of nausea, and then my skin prickled and gained what felt like a coating of sweat for no readily apparent reason.

I felt like I was dying. The breathing didn’t seem to be helping, and it felt like I had been doing it for a good part of a minute now. I couldn’t hear anything but the ringing noise; no heartbeat, no pounding of blood, no breathing.

There was no pain, either, just the feeling of cold bathroom floor tiles against my skin. It was quite relaxing. I remembered a similar feeling from my kidney stone experiences, and the time I passed out in the office restrooms. I brought my mind back to the present. I was tempted to lie down and enjoy the cool tiles on my face, but then I remembered where I was. If I was about to die–and it definitely felt like a possibility–I was damned if I was going to do it on the bathroom floor.

I think I said the word “no”, and the word “bed”. There may have been some other words, but I couldn’t hear what I was saying. The hands helped me up, and I threw everything I had into a last ditch attempt to propel myself across the impossibly large bedroom.

I found the bed, and with a last lightning-bolt of pain I pushed and dragged myself onto it. I lay there, panting. The whining noise faded away, and my skin suddenly felt cold in the night air.


Later that morning, brief experiments demonstrated that I was unable to sit or stand. Or at least, not without levels of pain that I expected would lead to a return to cotton wool world. I could crawl, but there wasn’t really anywhere worth crawling to that didn’t require sitting or standing.

Past episodes of back pain have been ameliorated by acupuncture. By coincidence, on Saturday we’d had dinner with an acupuncturist friend from Dallas. I had sent a message Sunday evening, but by then she had returned home.

It turned out, however, that another friend is an acupuncturist. She was able to make a house call. Afterwards, I was able to stand up and walk downstairs. I had some lunch and showed off my new bipedal abilities. Then it was time for the prescribed heat-and-cold therapy.

Heat therapy is something I’ve always found extremely helpful. My body likes heat. Cold is a different kettle of frozen fish. I ran a bath, trying to get the water temperature as close to the prescribed 68F as was possible, given that the only thermometer we had that had an appropriate scale was designed for steaming milk. The water felt tepid but not cold, at least until I got into it, at which point I remembered how much I hate getting into swimming pools.

I made sure that at least my back was submerged, and started the timer on my watch. About 15 minutes later, I noticed my teeth were chattering, and I still had 5 minutes to go. I told myself that it was this or more agonizing pain, and stuck it out. Then I dried off, got into bed, and turned on the heat pad.

It took a good deal longer than 20 minutes for me to stop shivering, and longer still before I felt able to contemplate more cold. The second time around, I opted to use a cold pack, so the rest of me could stay warm. That worked.

So that’s been my day, alternate heat and cold on my back, trying to read a book or watch TV to take my mind off of it. It’s time for sleep now, and I can still sit and stand, though going from one to the other is tricky. I’ll probably need a followup with my usual acupuncturist.