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facts & arguments

MIKE FREIHEIT/The Globe and Mail

At 19, I was an average Canadian girl. I would sit through all my university classes (all right, most of my university classes), walk my dog, go to the gym, go dancing on weekends and sleep over at my friends' houses.

But at 20, I found myself with such severe back pain that these activities became agonizing.

I used to think of back pain as something only my parents or grandparents suffered from, an unfortunate by-product of aging. Granted, some days I feel like I'm bordering on 100. But here I am at 20, considering orthopedic mattresses.

People always ask how it started. I would like to tell them I pulled a muscle playing sports or that I put my back out lifting a heavy box. But I have no such story.

It started the first week of last October, for no apparent reason. At first, I figured I had slept funny or overworked some muscles at the gym. When the pain didn't go away, but got progressively worse, I started to worry.

By the last week of October, I knew I needed to see a doctor. I found one through my university. He asked me to bend a couple of different ways, and within three minutes had given me what I thought was the magical solution – massage therapy.

I would lie in a tiny, beige room listening to the sounds of waterfalls and loons while a woman rubbed scented cream all over me. Now, that was the kind of prescription I could handle.

However, as the appointments went on, the massage hurt more and more and delivered fewer and fewer results. By Christmas, I had given up on this alluring idea and, with some urging from my mother, decided to see my family doctor.

He poked and prodded and asked lots of questions. Where was the pain? Everywhere, I told him. At that point there was referred pain, which is pain that has spread from the original source, all through my back, shoulders and arms and down through my legs. He proceeded to tell me my pain made no sense. I agreed.

He took a blood test for a rare inflammatory disease that he was positive I didn't have. Thankfully he was right, but we were no closer to finding the actual problem. He sent me on my way with yet another referral, this time for physiotherapy.

Physio turned out to be painful and exhausting. The therapist would find every knotted muscle and work it until I could hardly breathe, and only then would he pause to ask how I was doing. I would grunt and tell him to keep going; I was willing to do anything that might take the pain away.

He told me I had something "funky" going on with my back. I agreed.

After a few months, I started feeling pressure in my rib cage and was sent for X-rays. I waited a few gruelling weeks for results, just to be told I am completely "unremarkable." My chest, spine, neck and lungs are all quite normal, so that ruled out tons of strange conditions I had self-diagnosed using Google.

The worst thing about the pain is not knowing – not knowing if today will be a bad day, not knowing what makes the pain worse or better, not knowing how long this will last.

I have made peace with the fact I may always have to refer to it simply as "back pain," but it still would be nice to have some answers. It's not that I have been seeing incompetent medical professionals – in fact they have all been extremely good to me. It is simply the nature of back pain to be unique to each person.

I often think the people around me see my pain as less valid because I don't have an impossible-to-pronounce name for my condition. Or maybe they don't know about it. I've tried to maintain my busy routine with a smile on my face.

Recently, my best friend asked how my back was feeling that day. I took her hand and placed it on my shoulder. Under the pressure of her hand, the muscle wiggled back and forth in one clearly definable piece.

She snapped her hand back and gasped in horror – after months of being blindly supportive, she finally understood. "They're all like that," I chuckled. "Welcome to my life."

The only reassuring part throughout the whole saga is that I've had someone who understands exactly what I am experiencing. My mom has long suffered from a frozen shoulder, a condition in which inflammation creates immobility and pain. This has left her on serious painkillers and months of disability leave.

She has coached me through exercises, and is the first person I call to complain about any particular flare-up.

Most days, she laments about how she wishes she could take on my pain; most days, I wish I could take on hers.

As funny as it sounds, it's comforting to have a "partner in pain."

I have become so accustomed to pain that sometimes I don't even notice it. Other days it's a dull ache. Some days I am afraid to move.

But between keeping up with physiotherapy and having my mom to push and challenge me, the number of good days is gradually growing.

It's going to be a long road back, but maybe I'll be young again by 21.

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