A post by my friend Judith Gray:
Midway through the Boston snowmageddon, I decided to shovel the family room roof before the predicted eighteen inches fell on the three feet already there.
The next day I woke up with wrenching pain in my lower back. I read up on all the cures for a strained back – anti-inflammatories, ice then heat, stretching exercises, rest – and tried them all. Even with the maximum doses of ibuprophen I couldn’t sleep, but lots of folks at work were complaining and carrying around little bottles of pills so I figured this was just something to be borne.
Then I noticed a rash on my stomach…a dreaded allergic reaction to ibuprophen, I thought. So I switched to naproxen and acetaminophen. The pain was unrelenting and I was exhausted, so I finally called my health clinic and insisted I needed stronger pain meds. They made me come in.
The doctor took one look and said, “It’s shingles.” The rash had spread around my back in a broken line of red bumps. Shingles has nothing to do with roofing materials – it comes from a the French and Latin for belt and girdle, and typically makes a half-circle around the trunk (never crossing the mid-line), though it can occur elsewhere.
But wait…I had the shingles vaccine when I turned 60. “Good, that should keep you from getting postherpetic neuralgia (pain that can last for years), “ the doctor reassured me. “It’s probably too late for an anti-viral to work (72 hours from first sign of the rash is the effective zone) but if you’re desperate and want to try anything, I can prescribe it.”
Yes, give me all the meds I can get! She prescribed the anti-viral valtrex, and percocet for the pain, and told me I must quarantine myself until 24 hours after the rash stopped spreading. “ You can’t go to work. Your husband will need to keep an eye on your back to let you know when the spots stop spreading. He’ll also have to take the written prescription to the pharmacy and do the grocery shopping.” Having a retired husband home 24/7 wasn’t looking so bad.
While shingles is not contagious, I could infect someone with chicken pox, particularly dangerous for the elderly and pregnant women. Both diseases are the varicella-zoster virus; if you’ve had chicken pox, the virus is lying dormant in your nervous system, waiting to travel along neural pathways to your skin. Stress, trauma, and a weakened immune system can trigger it. Maybe the trauma to my back from the snow shoveling was the cause, though the doctor was skeptical.
Shingles last 2 to 4 weeks, and I’m at the end of week 3. All the stories you’ve heard about the excruciating pain of shingles are true. Some of my friends have seen a Terry Bradshaw clip where he compares the pain to the worse NFL linebacker hits he took – that has bought me a lot of sympathy. It’s an ad for the shingles vaccine, which though not totally effective at prevention, does offer some protection. According to the ad and other reports I have read, one out of three people get shingles. Not sure how accurate that is, but the disease is very common and risk increases dramatically with age as our immune systems weaken. Take a look at the National Institute of Health and the Mayo Clinic for more information.
If you think you might have shingles, get checked out right away to get the anti-viral medicine within the 72 hours window. If you have a bumpy rash (like poison ivy) and/or severe pain, get it checked out; these symptoms can occur in any order. I had the pain for at least three days before the rash appeared. Don’t get sidetracked by a stubborn self-diagnosis or misguided confidence to power through pain.
I’m stilled snowed under (100 plus inches), but I’ve yielded control of the shovel and given in to the need for powerful pain killers. I spend hours under an afghan reading books I’ve been trying to get to for years and look forward to the brighter days of spring.
Judith Gray has worked as a librarian in public and university libraries for 35 years, most recently as Head of Reference at the Concord (Massachusetts) Public Library. She retired from full-time work three year ago, easing the transition by working part-time, while she reinvented her life. She lives in Bedford, Mass. with her husband of 35 years, and shares a beloved lake cottage with her brother and sister. She enjoys cooking, reading, traveling, all forms of exercise, and visiting her children in Connecticut and New York.
Check out Judith’s Friend for the Ride post on Lydia Pinkham, who created an early cure for women’s complaints!