When Michelle Wilson discovered that she could move without pain in the warm therapy pool at Water’s Edge, everything changed.
Finally, after 16 years of chronic, debilitating low-back pain, Wilson could exercise again. And with that big personal win, she could start to lose — lose the pain, depression, weight and prescription drugs.
“I used to be fat, bloated, unhappy, often in tears and limping,” says Wilson. “Now I look like this and I’m walking with a smile on my face. I can’t tell you how many people who haven’t seen me in a long time say, ‘Wow you look great; you’re O.K. again,’”
At 46, she is better than okay—she’s a new person.
A lifelong resident of The Dalles, Wilson was a gymnast and dancer growing up. Her back problems started in 1996 with what she and her doctor initially thought was a pulled muscle from cleaning houses, which she did full-time as the owner of her own business.
But when the pain grew much worse, she knew something was seriously wrong. By the time she had an MRI, she couldn’t even lie flat on her back without screaming in pain.
The MRI revealed a severely ruptured disk in her lower back that was causing Cauda equina syndrome, a severe disorder that affects the bundle of nerve roots at the end of the spinal cord. If left untreated, it can lead to incontinence and permanent paralysis of the legs.
“Dr. John Schwartz (of MCMC | OHSU Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine) actually cancelled his vacation to do emergency surgery the next day,” says Wilson. “I woke up after the surgery feeling better, but still had some residual pain. My muscles would get really tight around that area and I was still numb in areas.”
For a number of years, she lived with the lingering pain and numbness, relying on ibuprofen and her hope that it would go away. She continued to clean houses, but had to take frequent breaks in which she’d lie flat on the floor and rest her back. As the years passed, Wilson gained weight and her back ached constantly, which led to a dependence on prescription drugs.
In 2011, she found herself back in the operating room with another ruptured disk in her lower back. But this time when she woke up from surgery, she actually felt worse than she did before the operation.
“The recovery was slow, painful, awful,” she says. “I would cry. I was trying to watch what I was eating, but I couldn’t move. I could hardly be left alone during the day.”
She was on the couch for weeks and found herself in a vicious cycle. The pain depressed her and her depression intensified the pain. Prescription drugs helped reduce the physical pain, but she hated feeling “out of it.” She turned to food for comfort and gained weight. She was flat-out miserable.
Wilson didn’t understand why it hurt to stand up, but not to sit down. She knew something more was going on—something possibly unrelated to her disk issues. And while her doctor couldn’t see an identifiable cause, she felt there had to be an answer. She began searching for new avenues to healing.
“I got tired of feeling the way I was feeling and did something about it,” she says. “I started asking around. I researched. I listened to people’s ideas.”
Meantime, she met “the man of her dreams,” Tom Wilson.
“Tom was in good shape and had so much zest for life,” she says. “I thought, ‘I have got to do something about my health.’”
Wilson told her doctor she wanted to try physical therapy, yet her insurance didn’t cover it. So she and Tom decided they would pay for it out of pocket.
An MCMC physical therapist at Water’s Edge thought Wilson might have piriformis syndrome, a neuromuscular disorder that is caused when the piriformis muscle compresses the sciatic nerve. It usually starts with pain, tingling, or numbness in the buttocks—all of which Wilson experienced.
The therapist developed a simple stretching and exercise program in the Water’s Edge therapy pool to see if it would help. Miraculously, it did.
Since then Wilson has lost 20 pounds, gained muscle, completely changed her diet and weaned herself off all prescription medications.
Last September, she and Tom got married. They are planning a trip to Maui soon and Wilson says she’s planning to wear a “hot pink bikini and feel O.K. in it.”
“I still have a ways to go, but I don’t feel bad about myself anymore,” she says. “I no longer look in the mirror and say, You look gross. I say, Wow, you’ve really come a long way.”
Wilson works out in the therapy pool at Water’s Edge for one to two hours five days per week. She warms up, stretches and does arm and leg resistance movements. She then swims in place as fast as she can. She and Tom exercise together in the Water’s Edge Fitness Center about two evenings per week. They lift weights and she rides the stationary bike. She takes the weekends off.
“When they say a body in motion stays in motion, they are so right,” she says. “You’ve got to move. People who don’t move are going to be in pain.”
“The water is key for me,” says Wilson. “Walking hurt me. Exercising hurt me. In the water, I could move freely because I was weightless. I could probably walk now, but I still choose to come here and do my routine because I love it.”
Wilson mainly eats lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and she drinks lots of water.
“I still want that yummy food,” says Wilson. “I’m Italian. I want spaghetti, but I know if I eat it, I’m going to regret it. So I get spaghetti squash and put some marinara sauce on it and I’m happy. There are so many things you can do to food to make it taste good without adding fat.”
Wilson says you can retrain your taste-buds.
“Try to eat healthy for a week,” she suggests to people trying to change eating habits. “And your body and mind will feel so good, so much better, that you won’t want to go back to eating the crap. Eventually, your taste buds will change.”
“Once in a while I will have a chocolate chip cookie, but I don’t have 12 of them like I did before,” she says. “Now I’ll have some yogurt with honey in it, which is scrumptious.”
“You can’t just cover pain with narcotics,” says Wilson. “Pain is telling you something is wrong. The narcotics are going to bring on new problems.
“Drugs are a quick fix. It’s all about changes and choices. Everything I have done has made me feel so much better.”