Sorry for my massively long absence, folks. Here’s my latest column for the Pain News Network!
One would think that encouraging inflammation is a bad idea, right?
“Let’s stick you with needles, inject a dextrose solution, and create some new tissue. It’ll be great!”
That’s what my dad has been saying since 2004. He had prolotherapy done for his low back in college, and it did wonders for him. I was extremely dubious. It sounded far too strange – injecting a sugar solution? Into my neck?
I have very extensive injuries from two separate car accidents. To sum it up quickly, I have badly-healed thoracic fractures, bulging lumbar discs hitting nerves, and two cervical fusions that cause a lot of post-surgical pain. The idea of purposefully creating more inflammation sounded insane. But after my second fusion, when the pain started increasing no matter how dutifully it was treated, I decided to give it a try.
Prolotherapy, or sclerosing injections, is still considered a bit radical, even though it’s been around since the 1930’s. The reason for the mystery is because there haven’t been enough double-blind studies conducted yet.
It’s a non-surgical ligament and tendon reconstruction injection designed to stimulate the body’s natural healing processes. By creating inflammation, you prod the body to create new collagen tissue and help weak connective tissue become stronger.
Because I live in the Boston area, that meant the drive to the doctor’s office was an hour each way. Most people do each area (lumbar, thoracic, cervical) separately, and each area takes approximately five rounds of shots. For me, that would’ve meant an eternity of needles.
I chose the insane route: five weeks of intense pain, meaning five weeks of all three areas at the same time.
It’s not supposed to hurt that much – people can take an aspirin and go to work after the appointment, grumbling about their aching knee. My pain response has become far more sensitive in my back and neck since the accidents, so what’s like a bee sting for other people is like thick surgical needles for me.
As such, it was hellishly difficult. Each appointment was on a Wednesday and took about fifteen minutes. The doctor injected my low back and then let me rest with an ice pack down the back of my pants. Then he injected my neck, loading me with more ice packs. Then, very gingerly, he approached the mid-back, which was the most damaged of all. He had to consult my MRIs for that one because the bones are not quite where they’re supposed to be.
For me, it took about an hour for the real pain to kick in, which gave me just enough time to drive home. The doctor numbed me with a topical anesthetic as well, so I sat on five ice packs and made the drive back to my house, where I collected all the ice packs in the freezer and arranged them on the recliner. Then I wouldn’t move for about two days. Sleeping was almost impossible without ice packs stuffed into my pajamas; I still can’t sleep on my back, two months later. Sitting like a normal human being was out of the question.
For five weeks, I spent the two or three days after shots recovering from absurd amounts of pain, and then by the time I’d recovered, it was almost time for the next round. My level of pain was far more than what other people online have reported. I also did a lot more shots at once than other people do. My experience was very much abnormal. But, most importantly: Did it work?
Well, yes. It did. Amazingly so. I’d told myself at the beginning that if this procedure controlled even 25 percent of the pain, that would be worth it. That would be worth the driving, the pain, and the out-of-pocket cost that isn’t covered by insurance.
My cervical fusions caused my arms not to work a lot of the time. Typing, writing, and using my hands for general tasks was very difficult and tiring. Additionally, my shoulder blades had what felt like black holes filled with electric fire. Nothing helped it. Nothing worked.
Two weeks into the prolotherapy regimen, my arms were fine and the black holes had disappeared.
I still have a lot of my daily low-grade, all-body pain. I still have massive headaches and neck pain. But my sciatica is also better, I’ve noticed – I was able to go to a rock park called Purgatory Chasm and clamber all over humongous boulders, and afterward I was only sore, not in agony.
So do I think it works? Absolutely. The other great part is that it’s supposed to last for at least a few years. Steroid injections only last a few months. I very much prefer this schedule.
If you can get past the “alternative therapy” label and can scrounge up the money to pay for it, I’d highly recommend prolotherapy. It worked for me, and I’m still waiting to see more of its effects. I hope that it works as well for you.