For the last 10 years, Eileen* has been experiencing severe pain due to a series of spine-related issues that began with sciatica pain at age 27 and most recently turned into a life-threatening spinal cord infection in the form of an abscess. The cause of the abscess has never been determined.
Baffling the experts
"On September 18th, 2003, I was sitting watching the TV when I had what I thought was a bad muscle spasm or a sprain in my lower back," Eileen said. "I went to bed but could not sleep as the pain was getting worse and worse to the point where I thought I was going to die."
Lumbar muscle strains can cause intense pain. See Pulled Back Muscle and Lower Back Strain
She went to the hospital first thing the next morning, and the ER doctor diagnosed her with a possible slipped disc. The doctor said the best thing to do was to see a private physiotherapist as soon as possible. She was unable to walk, so her partner had to carry her to his car.
She saw the physiotherapist the next day, noting "the physiotherapist examined me and tried a TENS machine on me," Eileen said. "I can't begin to describe the pain that caused, and the physiotherapist sent me home saying he could do nothing for me until the pain had subsided."
She got in to see her primary care doctor by the end of that week. Her doctor prescribed Diazepam, increasing her dose several times over a 2-week period in an effort to help her pain subside. Over that 2-week period, she began to experience side effects from her medication like extreme weight gain and delirium, along with her agonizing back pain.
Finally, Eileen had a full body scan. It was determined she had an "anomaly" on her spine, and was sent for an MRI, which revealed an enormous abscess.
Eileen had a 12-hour emergency surgery to drain 330 ml of pus out of her abdominal cavity and 25ml of pus out of her spinal cord cavity.
The damage to her vertebrae was assessed at the time of the surgery and it was determined that titanium rods and screws were required to support the damaged spine. Sadly, Eileen says, "I have suffered chronic pain and all that it entails ever since."
Her case was very rare, which may explain why it took so many doctors to figure out what was wrong with her. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, up to 1.96 patients per 10,000 hospital admissions per year are affected with a spinal cord abscess.1
A frustrating recovery
Eileen spent almost six weeks in the hospital after her surgery. Since then she has participated in physical therapy multiple times with no pain improvement. She also had a few rounds of acupuncture, which did not help her pain levels.
In 2013, Eileen had new X-rays and MRI scans conducted in an effort to determine the best course for treatment of her self-described "severe pain."
"I was told it was ‘just deterioration' and that I had developed arthritis and spondylitis," Eileen said. "I was then referred back to the physiotherapist, who discharged me declaring that there was no exercise or treatment she could give me that was better than the daily walking routine that I was doing of my own volition every day. I used to be extremely active before my infection. Now, walking is the only thing I can do, and I love it."
Finding comfort in hobbies
"My walks were of between 3 and 10 miles a day, depending on the time of year and the weather," Eileen said. "These walks helped my pain immensely even though the activity itself was immensely painful as it kept me fit and not so stiff."
While the last 10 years have been difficult for Eileen, she does have advice for those in chronic pain: find a hobby. In addition to walking, she has taken up photography.
"I'm not very good at it but I love it and this activity is the best I have yet undertaken in terms of pain relief as when I am totally and intensely immersed in the act of taking photos my pain miraculously disappears for those few moments," Eileen said. "This helps me walk further and doubles my enjoyment. I would advise everyone who suffers pain to do something they enjoy, immerse themselves in it and distract their minds away from their pain. It's the best pain management I have undertaken."
*Name changed to protect patient privacy.
- Hlavin, M L, H J Kaminski, J S Ross, and E Ganz. "Spinal Epidural Abscess: A Ten-Year Perspective," Neurosurgery 27, no. 2 (August 1990): 177–84.