Sunday, June 26, 2011

Precious spine

My mother slipped in the bathroom the other day, causing a compression fracture in her lumbar spine (L2 looked like it was squished in half, and L3 looked a little chipped too). It's a pretty sucky injury all right. It hurts like hell and my mom has very low pain tolerance. There's not much the doctors can do besides prescribing pain killers and bed rest.  I actually thought she was going to be in the hospital for weeks because in the beginning it looked like any jerky movements caused her terrible pain. However within a week she was able to get up on her own with the help of a walker and walk around for a bit, so they kicked her out of the hospital.

Actually the nurse didn't think she could get out of the hospital so soon. My mom screamed like she was on fire whenever anyone tried to move her (change her clothes etc), which probably scared the staff, especially the intern/student nurses. Whenever she screamed like that, they would give her a morphine shot, which would calm her down but made her feel dizzy, nauseous, with no appetite the entire time. The hospital food looks disgusting and tastes bland, and other patients living on the floor are also loud,  sick, and strange, so I don't blame her for wanting to get home as soon as possible. So when the occupational therapist decided to give her a functionality test to see if she could sit up on the bed and use the bathroom on her own, she performed her hearts out and passed the tests with flying colors. She got to go home sooner than everyone expected. The doctors and physiotherapists were amazed at her progress.

Once she got home, I was amazed at how much she could walk on her own, sometimes without a walker. The bed she owns is much softer than the one in the hospital, but when I asked the doctor and the occupational therapist they told me that the hardness of the bed doesn't affect the rate at which her back will recover. However, I really wish the hospital physiotherapist had worked with her better on figuring out how to move to avoid causing pain. It looked like my mom is not very body aware, nor is she very good at taking suggestions. The most difficult movement for her seemed be to going from a horizontal lying position to a vertical sitting or standing position. From sitting to standing was only difficult on the first day home, and afterwards she had no problems with the support of a walker. There would be ways she moves that would cause her to scream like she broke her back again. But after a few tries she'll find a way to sit up that seems to be non-painful at all. The occupational therapist prescribed some props that we brought home (basically a walker, handle bars for the toilet, and a shower chair). I later got a her bed rail as well. When she had trouble getting up she would demand that she needs a special bed, when really all she needs is to move more carefully. I sound unsympathetic but it looks very obvious that she twists her body unnecessarily, when she should swing her legs to the ground with as little movement in the spine as possible, and push herself up with her arms and hopefully core strength to support the spine. I wish I have physiotherapist and yoga teacher training so I can instruct her on better ways of getting up. Right now I suck at providing clear instructions and she doesn't seem to have very fine muscle control in her body. She gives me weird commands like lifting her up from the armpit, which I tried, but she's too heavy and it just doesn't work at all. So she would take a couple of Tylenol pills, wait 30 minutes, and get up totally fine. I can't tell if it's the pain killer working its magic, or she just figured out a better way to move to avoid pain.

Seeing my mother's injury makes me glad for my spinal health, but also made me went out and bought calcium supplement pills right away. It's going to take her a few months to heal, but actually a compression fracture is better than other types of injuries (like a hip fracture), so in this sense my mother's lucky. The doctor (not a very sympathetic one) told me "at least it's not bone cancer". Uh, that's comforting Doc. My dad who's a retired radiologist was able to tell me a bit more (we had to beg to be allowed to see the X-ray). He was glad the vertebrae were not out of alignment, nor did the spaces between the vertebrae look compressed, so comparably this was not a really terrible injury. Radiologists however are only concerned about diagnosis and know nothing about treatments or physiotherapy, so my mom's on her own for recovery.

This is actually the second time my mother has suffered from a compression fracture, so she's kind of "experienced". Last time the fracture happened at L5 (above S1) and hurt way more. Also, last time she was in Asia, so they were all generous and let her stay in the hospital bed for as long as she wanted with no physio exercise prescriptions. After a couple months her leg and back muscles were so weak it was impossible for her to sit up or walk at all. So overall it took over 6 months to heal. I'm hoping this time it heal a lot faster since she's being encouraged to sit and walk a couple days after injury. Another tidbit for you anatomy geeks - compression fracture (or probably any kind of spinal injury) hurts more at the joints - eg. between the sacrum and lumbar, between the lumbar and thoracic groups, etc. At least that's what my dad says (so theoretically L2 is a "better injury location" than L5???") Hmm, it's not like you can control where you injure yourself anyway.

Anyways, moral of the story: keep doing your yoga to strengthen your spines, prevent osteoporosis, and learn finer muscle group control, so that if you injure yourself, you'll have better skills at modifying your  movements to maximize efficiency/healing and minimize pain/further injuries. I believe that meditation and deep breathing can help with pain management as well. I am going to spend the rest of my life loading myself up with as much health-related information as possible because the doctors and physios aren't always informative or helpful. They are loaded with information about diseases and injuries, which are very useful, but they aren't necessarily experts on wellness, especially when most of them aren't very familiar with yoga. I briefly thought about physiotherapy as a career, but seeing the hospital physio changed my mind. She was very grumpy, and didn't really offer my mother much exercises. It seems like yoga exercises are much more fun than physio exercises anyway. Take care of your spines, yogis!!


  1. Thank you for this post. I certainly will do my best to take care of my spine, and I hope your mother recovers quickly. Perhaps she might be motivated to start some kind of mind/body discipline (Pilates, Taichi, maybe even yoga :-)) after she gets better as a result of this experience. I actually started doing mind/body disciplines (I started with Pilates before eventually discovering yoga) because I hurt my back. It wasn't anything serious (I just pulled a muscle in my lower back), but it certainly was enough to get me to become aware of what was going on in an area of the body that I normally couldn't see :-)

  2. owww. i thought parents were only visiting? they're staying with you long term? will swimming help - the water may help alleviate the pressure.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I wish your mom a quick recovery.

  4. Thanks Nobel, Yoginicory, and Sereneflavor. Unlike me who prefers to take lessons with a teacher, my mother is much more self-disciplined and prefers to do exercises on her own. She says she still remembers all the exercises given by the physio the last time she had the injury so she'll be doing them herself. I hope she recovers well on her own too.

  5. Oh dear I hope your mom gets better soon!