Chronic Back Pain:
Gayle Parseghian's Story
Booting Pain, Dancing Again
Gayle Parseghian had never felt more desperate.
In early 2007, the 54-year-old ballet teacher from Toledo, Ohio, was in the waiting room of a surgeon’s office for an appointment to discuss treatment for the excruciating back pain that had been tormenting her for the past several months. She was there despite other doctors' skepticism about surgery. One had even said, “You have only about a 20 percent chance of pulling out of this.”
She had run out of options. Parseghian had already taken two trips to the emergency room, had spent a week in the hospital on pain management medications, had tried acupuncture, chiropractor visits, massage therapy and myofascial therapy and had even spent more than $1,000 on Chinese herbal remedies.
While waiting, Parseghian read through a medical magazine. Suddenly, she flipped to an article that described the answer to her prayers. An intensive, four-week “boot camp” program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s (RIC) Center for Pain Management, which taught those suffering from chronic pain the techniques and tools they needed in order to manage and improve their daily lives.
Parseghian’s life as she knew it had been dramatically affected when she was helping her husband move furniture at a ski cabin they had spent three years building in Big Sky, Montana, the previous year.
“It was our dream,” she says. One of the items they were carrying down a set of stairs was a truncated church pew her husband had obtained from his alma mater, Notre Dame, when the university was renovating its chapel. “It weighed a lot, and I lifted it improperly and contorted myself in a twisted position,” she said.
Two days later, Parseghian experienced shooting pains down her left leg. A week later, she was in excruciating pain and couldn’t walk. “It felt like someone was sticking a knife into my knee,” she said.
Having her body completely disabled by pain was especially traumatizing for Parseghian because, as a ballet instructor, her body was her life. “My body was my instrument, my profession,” she says. “I’m a wife and a mother, but dance was what defined me as a person. All of a sudden, not to have it working was devastating.”
The debilitating pain also sent Parseghian into a deep depression. The normally stylish and extroverted woman withdrew from her friends, stopped caring about her appearance and became so anxious that many mornings she wouldn’t let her husband leave for work because she feared being alone. “I was in a very dark place,” she says.
A Turning Point
When she entered RIC’s pain “boot camp” in January 2008, it was with a fair bit of trepidation. “If this doesn’t work, what hope is there?” she asked herself. But any doubts Parseghian had were erased on her first day in the program, which focuses on an interdisciplinary model of care involving physicians, nurses specializing in pain care, physical therapists, psychologists, relaxation therapists and vocational counselors.
"Listening to a psychologist talk about the vicious cycle of pain and the accompanying depression and anxiety, I thought she was directing her talk just to me," says Parseghian.
While physical therapy, such as stretching, walking, weight training and aqua therapy, were an important part of the program, a key element was learning how to go about everyday activities in a way that doesn’t overtax your body.
During the program’s first week, for instance, Parseghian and her fellow participants were all asked to place as many small weights in a basket they thought they could safely carry across a room. One-by-one, they were videotaped picking the weights up, placing them in the basket, carrying them across the room and placing them down on the other side. They were also videotaped as they bent down to take a towel out of a laundry basket and as they bent over a sink to wash their faces.
When Parseghian watched herself on tape the problem was obvious. “Everything I did I was bending down with my knees straight, putting strain on my back,” she says. “It’s the little things like that that people don’t think about. You just don’t realize that the abuse the joints take is quite phenomenal.”
Learning relaxation techniques (PDF) to relieve stress and muscle tension were key pain management tools Parseghian acquired in biofeedback therapy sessions. She knew she was a Type-A personality, but never realized just how tense she really was until therapists attached wires from a machine to different parts of her body, such as her shoulders, and then showed her how strained the muscles were. “I was amazed at how tense they were when I thought they were relaxed,” says Parseghian.
Several times a week, relaxation therapists led Parseghian and the others through hour-long sessions devoted entirely to teaching them how to relax their bodies through techniques such as deep breathing, which helped relieve muscle tension. They were also taught how to differentiate between tight and relaxed muscles.
“Gayle worked hard in this program and was open to being educated about her pain and learning new ways to manage it,” said her physician, Dr. Steven Stanos, D.O., medical director of the RIC Center for Pain Management.
After the program, Parseghian returned to her regular workouts and returned to her active lifestyle. Thanks to the valuable lessons she learned in the pain program, she is aware of her body's limits and no longer pushes herself to the extreme. Instead of kicking a leg as high as she can, she now only lifts it to 45 degrees. “I listen better now to what my body is telling me,” she says.
After learning to manage and control her pain, Parseghian returned to her Montana cabin in March for a ski trip with her husband.
“When I arrived at RIC I was down and out and at a complete loss to know what to do,” she says. “The chronic pain program took this physically and emotionally beaten up person and helped her regain control of her life. It’s like a new beginning.”