Mathochism: Love and math in time of sciatica

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

The pain started Friday night. It was sharp and constant, starting in the middle of my left buttock, wrapping around the hip, then shooting down to the knee.

A classic case of sciatica.

I’ve dealt with it before, and while it’s always unpleasant, I’ve managed it with stretching, taking medication, sleeping on a softer surface and generally willing it away.

But this time, it was very different. None of the usual cures seemed to work, and by Saturday night I was in so much pain I moved to the couch because it was softer. I curled up in fetal position, trying desperately to take pressure off my back muscle.

My poor husband didn’t know what to do. He tried to comfort me as much as possible, but watching someone you love in severe pain you can’t do anything about is probably one of the most heart-breaking experiences out there. You feel so helpless.

I spent most of Sunday in fetal position. Early Monday morning, I woke up in pain again. Trying not to wake my husband, I went to the living room and curled up on the couch. But the pain was not waning, it was sharpening. I started sobbing and begging it to stop. My husband came in — and I felt awful for waking him with my pain.

Now, here’s the thing about me and pain — I deal with it every day. I have rheumatoid arthritis, and have had it for years. But my joint pain is not usually as sharp and constant as sciatica. It’s more of a dull ache, and usually stops if I position the joint a certain way. It also responds to medication.

Since I’m already on a strong daily painkiller, I can’t safely take more drugs without worrying about Swiss cheesing my liver or ruining my digestion. But that Monday, I broke down and doubled up on the pills. The effect was pretty immediate, since my stomach was empty. And I got the expected digestive issues.

But it helped dull the pain, which went from intense and miserable to dull and ghostly. I could feel the pain hanging around the edges, ready to pounce. Still, I felt well enough that I could get some work done, and we were able to go to a friend’s Labor Day party on condition that we go home if the pain came back.

Since it was Labor Day, I had no algebra that evening. I was very grateful, because I wasn’t sure I would be able to sit still on an uncomfortable plastic chair for three hours without serious pain. This new professor is hardcore on attendance — miss four classes and you’re out. Only an ER visit will exempt you, and then he wants a doctor’s note.

I understand why he has this policy — it weeds out the flakes. But I worry my health may work against me on this one.

And the pain did return Monday night. It had been waiting all day, and started again on the trip home. I had gone against my better judgment by taking yet another pill at dinner. I was completely stoned for a while, and the pain was magically gone, but that effect lasted for less than two hours. The concept that there is a “pain ceiling” on medications is certainly true.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to sleep that night, and further medication was out. As I fought the pain, I did what I always do when facing medical crises — I did research. I had done some before, but nothing this thorough.

There are a lot of people out there with sciatica, and there seems to be universal agreement that painkillers are not the answer. Icing and cooling are recommended within the first 48 hours. Since it had been 72 hours for me, I wasn’t optimistic that would work.

But it did. I spent half an hour numbing my back, and the pain became manageable. I was actually able to sleep for nine hours.

The pain was hanging around the edges again in the morning, but icing helped once more. I had no further attacks on Tuesday.

As for today, so far, so good. But I worry about class tonight. I may take the ice pack with me, and I am going to try to sit in an aisle, so I can get up and walk out to stretch during class.

I am certainly taking my medication again. By then, I will have been without it for 48 hours, and am hopefully safe again.

Originally, the plan was to go to math lab for two hours before class and get a start on homework. But I think five hours in an uncomfortable chair is a worse idea than three.

At least I have four days after tonight to get a handle on the pain. Mathochism is one thing — masochism quite another.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.

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