Anatomy of a fall

Posted: September 8, 2011 in aging, health

Every year, thousands of post-menopausal women are seriously injured in falls. Don’t be one of them.

Saturday, July 16: I’m at the airport in Minneapolis, waiting for the last leg of my flight home. I’ve spent the last four days visiting my delightful eight-month-old grandson. I’m rushing out of a restroom stall, just having congratulated myself on never having broken a bone (I am not making this up), when the combination of an unstable wheeled carry-on bag and a stylish but equally unstable pair of platform wedges that no sane 50+ woman should be wearing makes me lose my balance. I stumble across the aisle, half-twisting and gaining momentum as I fall, and I end up smack on my fanny in front of the opposing toilet, which, thankfully, was unoccupied. I hit the cold cement HARD. I am writhing on the floor, almost incoherent with pain. After I come to my senses and can sit up (and change my frackin’ shoes), I am helped to my feet by a female security officer. I wave off any assistance, except for a cart ride to my gate, and somehow endure the flight home on nothing but Tylenol and copious amounts of caffeine.

Monday, July 18: After spending Sunday in bed, being waited upon by my most excellent and sympathetic Spouse (a true Tender Mercy), I get up and go to work. Seriously. (Because I’m a martyr and an idiot.) Just getting showered and dressed reawakens the pain, which has pretty much driven in the entire buffalo herd and staked a claim on my lower back. I go home early and endure the rest of the day on an ice pack.

Tuesday, July 19: An x-ray at the doctor’s office shows that one of my lumbar vertebrae looks significantly shorter, especially when compared with a past x-ray. My doctor prescribes hydrocodone and and suggests — but doesn’t insist — that I get a MRI. “You could just monitor your pain for a week or two, and then decide,” he says. So I crawl away, fill the script and… Honestly, I can’t tell you much about the next two weeks because I am gorked-out on pain pills. My discomfort eases up some, but doesn’t go away. Any effort — taking a brief walk, trying to do the laundry, going up a flight of stairs — is painful.

Thursday, Aug. 4: I arrive at the local hospital for the MRI I didn’t want to have. Although I’ve managed to grit my teeth and get through the previous two days without a pain pill,  a half hour lying motionless in that cold silver coffin sends me back to the bottle. A specialist will look at the results, so I don’t expect to hear from my doctor until Monday.

Friday, Aug. 5: The phone wakes me up at 7 a.m. It’s my doc, calling to tell me that I have an acute lumbar fracture with a 25 percent reduction in the height of the vertebrae. And it’s fresh, so it’s most likely the result of my little gymnastics routine in Minneapolis. No lifting of any kind, he says. None. Calcium and Vitamin D supplements for life. Sit up and walk straight so the fracture heals properly. Schedule a bone density scan, although the last one showed no bone loss. Get up and walk around, even if it hurts. (It does.) And seriously consider having the fracture “glued” together, he says. (It’s called a vertebroplasty, the x-ray-guided injection of a cement polymer into the fracture, and it’s gotten mixed reviews.) It isn’t a cure, but it might reduce the pain. I promptly google “lumbar fracture.” I am not pleased. According to Medscape, “Vertebral compression fractures are associated with significant performance impairments in physical, functional and psychosocial domains in older women.” Gee, no kidding? I’m in persistent pain, I can’t do much of anything, and I am depressed.

Wednesday, Aug. 10: I ask my doc for a non-narcotic pain medication, since I’m becoming much too fond of the hydrocodone. (I’m right to worry: According to this Associated Press story,  it is the nation’s “second-most abused medicine, linked to murders, celebrity overdoses and a rising tide of violent pharmacy robberies.”) I admit I’m still on the fence about the vertebroplasty. Shouldn’t I be able to find some way to to manage the pain? “I think you’re just being brave,” he says. (I am.)

Thursday, Aug. 18: I meet with an interventional radiologist who shows me the images from the MRI. The vertebrae in question is seriously misshapen when compared to the rest of my spine, and bone splinters are clearly visible.  But the angle of the injury makes me a good candidate for the vertebroplasty, and he believes that I have a better-that-good chance of being pain-free and regaining most of my lost ability.

Thursday, Sept. 1:  I arrive at the hospital, where I am lightly sedated and placed face down on a narrow table in an operating suite. The radiologist, guided by a fluoroscope, drills two ten penny nail-size incisions into my first lumbar vertebrae and injects the cement substance, which hardens almost immediately. After regaining my wits, I am sent home with instructions on how to deal with the two incision points (no stitches) and a warning not to lift anything substantial (like my grandchildren). Other than that, I’m done. No rehab, no therapy. Within a couple of days, the inflammation from the procedure is gone, and my back pain is reduced, but not gone. I plan to patiently work on getting rid of the last of the pain with as little medication as possible. Light exercise seems to help, and in a month or so, I plan to visit my chiropractor.

But the experience leaves me utterly, completely terrified of falling again.

Conclusion: Quit hurrying. Get rid of your “stupid” shoes. (You know which ones I’m talking about.) Use handrails. Stay alert. Exercise. Get your bone density measured. Take supplements, if necessary. And stop telling yourself that it will never happen to you.

  1. notquiteold says:

    Wow. What a lot to go through. I feel your pain, and I’m worried now, because I am wearing my stupid shoes right now.

    • msmeta says:

      Well, don’t hurry and hang onto the handrails in the stairs and you’ll probably make it through the day. Just be careful, okay?

  2. Mizz D says:

    So sorry to hear of your fall and aftermath! Thanks for the informative post – I had always thought wedges to be a more stable way to rock a high heel but apparently not! I’m flying on Sunday and I’ll be sure to wear flats!

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