A Real Pain in the Neck
For the past two weeks I have been in some pretty excruciating pain. It radiates up and down my left arm and feels like something is pulling on my veins and twisting my muscles. Three of my fingers on my left hand are numb, and I am unable to lift my arm up over my head. Let alone lift my toddler, or do all the many things that need doing with the use of two arms.
Initially, I had no idea how this happened. I just woke up one morning with this awful neck pain and felt my mobility dramatically constrained. The neck pain in itself was not new. I’ve had a soreness in my back for the last few years now, and have been attempting to treat it with chiropractic visits, osteopathy, and exercise. I had recently begun jogging again, and thought it would soon sort itself out. Suddenly, I got hit up with this pain along the left side of my arm and shoulder. I thought perhaps I had torn a muscle. That I didn’t stretch something properly, or maybe even over-stretched it. Needless to say, it’s been pretty rough. Thankfully, I discovered both the cause and solution to this mysterious pain, and I’m all too happy to share what I’ve learnt. It’s been a revelation, and I hope that my own story can offer readers the same enlightenment.
Unravelling the Mysterious Cause of Pain
After the second consecutive day (night) of pain, I visited the hospital. I normally try to avoid hospitals unless absolutely necessary, but the pain was becoming unbearable. I could manage the affliction well enough when standing or sitting, but lying down was beyond my tolerance. When upright, the pain was perhaps 3 or 4 on a scale of ten. However, when I tried to lie back, the pain jumped up to at least an 8.
So off I went to the doctor and explained the situation. I was given painkillers, anti-inflammatory medication (as well as stomach strengthening meds to counter the side effects of the prescription), and told to come back in two weeks. As you might expect, I wasn’t particularly satisfied by the lack of explanation, but grateful for the hope of relief.
Turns out the pain medication didn’t actually do anything to alleviate the pain. I felt it with the same intensity, and once again found myself unable to sleep. I spent this time researching online to determine for myself what could be the source, and what to do about it.
Thoracic Outlet Syndrome
That’s when I came across Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (TOS). It’s a condition whereby the muscles around the neck and shoulders are compressed and end up pinching the collection of nerves and veins that run beneath your collarbone. It can cut off blood flow to the corresponding muscles, and generate a considerable amount of pain and numbness. It’s often caused by over-worked neck and shoulder muscles that have been made to do repetitive and weakening work over long periods of time. It is also associated with bad sitting and posture, carrying heavy packs for too long, as well as certain types of athletic activities such as tennis and baseball.
There are other potential causes, but when I read the posture part I immediately felt this might be my issue. I had become recently conscious of the fact that I sit/stand with my back curved and my shoulders rolled forward. Also sitting at a computer for long periods of time accentuates a neck strain. Finally, carrying around heavy backpacks and a wiggly toddler also contribute to the strain on my neck and shoulders. Despite the pain, I felt some pressure alleviate with the realization that I had probably determined what it was.
Armed with this new information, off I went to another hospital for a consultation and validation of my theory. The new doctor (this time specialized in orthopedics) did initially agree with my assessment, but sent me out for an x-ray of my neck to be sure that I hadn’t actually broken anything. After viewing my x-ray the doc was on board. Given my symptoms, it was most probably TOS. At which point the doc prescribed me new, stronger painkillers, as well as a medication that was to disrupt my nervous pain receptors. I was to take the meds twice a day, and go back in two weeks.
Once again, I left the hospital feeling pretty ambivalent about the experience. The doc had confirmed my conclusion, but hadn’t given me anything to actually solve my issue. Painkillers were potentially welcome (turns out they didn’t do any better in relieving my pain), but they didn’t help untangle or release the caught nerves and veins. What’s more, I found it strange that the doctor didn’t bother to physically examine the area. As with the last doctor, there was no physical contact. I considered it strange that a doctor wouldn’t want to poke around and observe what was happening. That’s simply my opinion, but I should think that the scientific method would encourage you to use your senses and explore for yourself.
The constant pain and my dissatisfaction with conventional medical practices led me to look for alternatives.
Trigger Point Therapy
That’s how I discovered Trigger Point Therapy. I went to visit a Holistic Health Clinic in my neighborhood, where I met with the wonderful Dr. Motoaki Otani. At his clinic, Dr. Otani specializes in therapeutic massage, chiropractic adjustments, and physical therapy (hhoc.jp). Through the application of therapeutic massage, he was able to determine the cause of my pain and immediately started to work on alleviating my suffering.
It was pretty impressive! He found what he explained were my pain trigger points and applied systematic pressure to allow for the increased flow of blood through those areas. Turns out, that the intense pain along the back of my upper arm was what he described as referral pain. The source of this pain was actually radiating from the muscles beneath my shoulder blade (the Teres Minor & Subscapularis), as well as major neck muscles (the Scalenes) that connect all the way down past the clavicle to he first and second rib.
For those of you not currently experiencing pain from TOS, the above explanation might appear overly detailed, but I was all too happy to learn. In fact, I found it surprising that until now I knew so little about how the muscles in my body worked! I have a pretty good understanding of biology, but had never really took the time to analyze my own specific motor functions. My wife and I have since noticed that most of the time it took us getting sick for us to learn about the cause and how to improve our health, but we hadn’t yet applied this approach to our own day-to-day mechanics.
Sustainable Pain Relief
Fortunately for me Dr. Otani took the time to explain what was going on and help point (>_･ ) me in the right direction. He provided me with the information and techniques with which to remedy my issues. Furthermore, he loaned me this book (pictured above), The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, with which to help treat the pain myself. It’s a great book! Written by a former piano tuner who eventually became an expert in this type of therapy after his own frustrating experiences with chronic pain. The book’s authors, Clair and Amber Davies, translate the science behind this effective therapy and offer images and practices for locating and self-treating trigger points.
An Amazing Discovery
As explained in the book, as well as by Dr. Otani, working on your trigger points is a means of resetting the pain relay, as you slowly work through undoing those knotted muscles. It’s comparable to performing micro-stretches in the targeted areas. Once the pain is eventually gone and you’ve regained your mobility, then you can move on to the larger muscles stretches and exercises (see the video below) in the hopes of avoiding such problems again in the future.
Some Useful Exercises for TOS
Don’t Give Up!
While my pain is not yet gone, I do feel as though I am making progress. I now work on those trigger points a few times a day and am certainly more mindful of my posture and the manner in which I sit, sleep, and walk. As unpleasant as this experience has been for me, I take it as a learning opportunity and hope others out there will gain value from this. Indeed, pain and poor health certainly impacts your motivation, and your ability to address all the issues facing us on a daily basis. There are however sustainable solutions out there, and I would encourage you to explore them.