Living with the cold shoulder
I am not a fan of pain.
As a child, I once fainted after striking my elbow on the edge of the kitchen table. A sudden jolt of pain shot up my arm like a lightning bolt, zapping my brain and sending me and my chair crashing to the floor. It was a moment of high drama for my siblings, who were seated around the breakfast table.
My mom first thought I was kidding and then feared I was dead.
This incident, and a few others like it, led my parents to take me to doctors, a specialist, and for testing at a nearby hospital. In the end they all concluded everything was normal, and I simply had a low tolerance for pain. My parents were relieved, but a bit annoyed, and not completely surprised.
As I got older, I suffered through headaches and other ailments and minor injuries like everyone else, but always with the added excitement of wondering if I might wake up on the floor. Fortunately, the fainting spells were few and far between. Still, it was a quirky condition that kept things interesting.
Once I reached adulthood and decided to start a family, the doctors’ words still echoed in my head. If I had a low tolerance for pain, how would I ever deliver a baby? The mere thought of labor was painful enough to make me want to reach for the smelling salts.
But when the day came, I delivered.
My labor nurses later laughed as they recalled the warning I had issued at the time they admitted me.
“You probably should know, I have a very low threshold for pain,” I told them breathlessly, as my husband timed my contractions. They smiled, patted my arm, and assured me I would do just fine. But privately, they had rolled their eyes, said a prayer, and prepared for a long day.
Once it was over, they celebrated at my bedside, beaming with pride.
“When you ever said you had a low tolerance for pain, we thought, ‘Uh oh, here we go…’” they laughed. “But you did great!”
That experience empowered me, and made me realize I could handle physical pain and whatever else life sent my way. But it wasn’t long before the rigors of holding, rocking and carrying a growing child started to take a toll. My back began to act up and then go out from all of the twisting and lifting.
I iced it, took Advil, and then ignored it, hobbling around until it felt better.
Then my left shoulder started to ache.
I powered through for months, refusing to see the doctor, even though it kept me awake at night and prevented me from doing things I had done my whole life. I had trouble dressing myself, doing my hair and even brushing my teeth. My plumber husband secretly became my personal stylist, and I assured him it was only temporary. Friends asked what I had done to my hair, as it had never looked better. I tried not to take offense and kept my focus on our daughter.
One day we were at a playground and I needed to use the bathroom. There was a port-a-potty nearby, so I brought my preschooler into the little plastic outhouse with me. She walked in, and I was standing behind her with the door half-open waiting for her to move aside.
Instead she dropped to the dirty floor and put her hands down near the toilet. I gasped and asked her to stand. When she wouldn’t, I took her by the shirt collar like a mother cat taking her kitten by the scruff, and tried to lift her to her feet. She resisted. At that moment, the spring-loaded door closed behind me, pinning my arm behind my back in an awkward position.
A familiar jolt of pain shot up my arm, into my shoulder, and I loudly shrieked in pain. Fearing my brain was the next stop, I tried to focus on something so I wouldn’t end up fainting onto the filthy floor. Tears sprang to my eyes as I looked around for Purell. No luck, but I did discover a small, stained mirror on the wall just inches from my face. The misery and pain I saw looking back at me was tragic. I clearly had hit rock bottom. I looked so pathetic I knew I had to see the doctor.
It didn’t take long for my doctor to advise that I likely had a rotator cuff injury. She recommended testing to confirm it. That would be followed by physical therapy, cortisone shots and ultimately surgery, if necessary. I didn’t like the sound of any of it one bit.
So I called my father. He is 87 years old and often has useful, or at least humorous, insights into these sorts of things. Sure enough, he did not disappoint.
“Rotator cuff?” he said. “Yeah, that hurts like a son of a gun. Both of mine were torn years ago.”
He had started a small house-painting business after retiring from the police force, and said the repetition of “swinging a brush” had damaged both of his shoulders.
“I don’t remember you ever having surgery,” I said.
“I didn’t,” he said. “Do you want to know what you do for a rotator cuff?”
“Yes, what?” I said eagerly, desperate for his words of wisdom.
“Absolutely nothing,” he advised. “You live with it.”
“What?!” I said. “I can’t live like this!”
An image of my tear-stained face in the port-a-potty mirror instantly came to mind.
“It will go away,” he said. “Give it time.”
And so I did. I waited a few months and then went to physical therapy to see if that alone might help. They recommended some exercises, which I did at home, to prevent an even more painful condition known as “frozen shoulder.”
More than a year later, I was in an exercise class when the instructor demonstrated a stretch I knew my arm could not do. I attempted it anyway, and to my great surprise, I was able to do it.
“I’m cured! I’m cured!” I said, pointing wildly and waving my arm at my doctor who, oddly enough, was in the same exercise class. She smiled, gave me a thumbs-up, and kept exercising.
So now, five years later, the left shoulder seems fine and the right one has started to ache. I no longer can sleep on it at night, and have trouble dressing myself and brushing my hair. I’ve felt that familiar lightning bolt of pain a few times, but haven’t fainted or felt compelled to go to the doctor. (At least not yet.)
Something tells me, I’ll know when it’s time. In the meantime, I've gotta talk to my hubby. This hair isn't going to style itself.
And the beat goes on.