The Headache That Wouldn’t Go Away: Part V

While I was in Vermont for Thanksgiving, I lined up a series of appointments for the week after. This time I was lucky; I managed to get an MRI appointment for the day after my return. I also booked an appointment with a pain management specialist and a spine doctor a friend recommended.

In Vermont, I had good days and bad days, but the headache didn’t come back. I went five days without a headache, then seven, then realized it had been ten days—and I could have cried with relief. When I woke up in the mornings, my head was fine. And I was realizing how different I’d felt on my most mild headache days—the days when I could feel it, but not enough to really notice it all the time—compared to how really fine felt. This time, I felt really fine.

The neck wasn’t fine, though. I still had the throbbing bone-deep ache under my skull, along with dizziness and periodic panic attacks. I was also becoming very picky about how I slept. At my parents’ house, on my childhood bed, I arranged my pillows to give my head a little nest so it could stay completely immobile during the night. I had to sleep on my back; waking up on my side or (God forbid) my stomach would mean a terrible neck day. I was also taking pain meds and about 1,000 milligrams of Naproxen per day. If I tried to wean off the Naproxen, the neck pain would get a lot worse.

The day I got back, I went to the pharmacy near my house to refill a prescription. I gave the pharmacist my benefit card and she typed it into her system and frowned.

“This says you’re not active,” she said. I explained that that couldn’t possibly be the case. She shook her head. “It says you don’t qualify for this plan,” she said.

Didn’t qualify? That was impossible. I’d done the taxes. I’d given the website my info. I had the damn card.

I called the insurance company in a panic. My MRI appointment was tomorrow; I was this close to getting real answers. If I couldn’t go tomorrow, who knew how long I’d have to wait?

But the insurance company was closed. My appointment was first thing in the morning; I woke up early to get on the phone, hoping to straighten everything out in time.

Needless to say, that’s not how it worked out. I spent an entire day on the phone, getting passed from one department to another and waiting on hold for unbearably long periods of time before someone figured out what had happened: my account had been deactivated by mistake. They could fix the mistake, but it would take some time. The person on the other end didn’t know how much time; it could be tomorrow, or it could be next week, or it could be in two weeks. In the meantime, I wouldn’t have coverage.

This was a disaster. I had to cancel all the appointments I’d set up, including the MRI. Also, about a month later, I got a $200 bill from my phone company for going over my plan while straightening the insurance issue out.

My neck was particularly bad over the next few days. In the midst of all this, I finally broke up with the guy I’d been seeing—mainly because I just was not in a position to deal with anyone’s needs except my own.

When I finally got the coverage back—about ten days after it had gone rogue—I immediately got on the phone to schedule an MRI. Luckily, I managed to get one the next day. When I went to the hospital, I handed my approval sheet to the receptionist. She took a look at it and asked me about my health issue.

“Neck pain,” I told her.

“But this is for your head,” she said.

She explained that the approval was only for an MRI for my head—if I wanted an MRI for my neck, I would have to get another approval. Which could take another few weeks.

That was my second hospital breakdown.

The receptionist was nice enough to call a doctor out to talk to me in the waiting room. He asked me about the health issue, then went off to confer with some other doctors. After a while—during which I spent noisily sniffling into a wad of tissues, trying to get ahold of myself—he came back and told me they might as well do the MRI to my head, because I’d had headache issues before and the head MRI included some of the top vertebrae. Except it had taken so long to figure that out that I had to reschedule my appointment. They fit me in the next week.

When I finally got the MRI results, the test showed nothing wrong.

I went back to my primary care doctor and explained the situation. I needed an MRI for my neck. Clearly I’d gotten the test on the wrong body part. “I don’t think they’ll approve it, but we can try,” she said.

In the meantime, I asked for a referral to physical therapy. I managed to get an appointment in a fairly timely fashion. “Yeah, you definitely have a problem,” the physical therapist said after walking me through an exam. “You have a really weak neck and limited range of motion all through your spine.”

He told me he couldn’t diagnose the problem, but he could give me some exercises to strengthen the muscles around my neck and spine—apparently the issue went all the way down, which made sense, because my back had also started hurting lately. I did the exercises religiously; a few of them seemed like adapted yoga moves.

“Bring me the MRI results when you get them,” the physical therapist told me.

Luckily, I was able to set up the appointment for the second MRI just before Christmas. I went almost 45 minutes early; if there were any problems this time, I wanted plenty of time to sort it out. But there weren’t. The appointment went smoothly, and there were no issues with my insurance or my paperwork, for once.

Except when I got the results back, they were the same: nothing wrong.

“That’s great news,” my primary care doctor said. “It means you don’t have something serious.”

I got what she was saying, but having chronic pain that wasn’t showing up on tests was its own kind of hell. One where doctors don’t believe you. One where you have to keep pushing for care. One where a “history of panic attacks” becomes a strike against you, and where people eventually start thinking you’re an addict if you’re on the heavier pain pills (I never went the opioid route, although my pain management doctor offered them). Still, I resolved to go up to Vermont again for Christmas and have as good a time as possible given the neck situation, and save the worrying for later.

In Vermont, again, I had good days and bad days. More good than bad, but I still didn’t feel strong enough to go skiing, which is something I tried to do with my family at least once a year. I still slept on my elaborate pillow construction. I’d bought a cervical pillow at some point, and that helped a little, except when it didn’t. I did my physical therapy exercises every day.

When I got back to New York, I lined up more physical therapy appointments. My physical therapist made some offhand comment about how I didn’t have to do the whole range of exercises if I went to a yoga or Pilates class, and that made me laugh—doing a whole class sounded totally undoable. But slowly, I started getting stronger. By February, I was doing an hour of yoga every day. And I was finally, finally starting to feel better.

But I still had setbacks. I still had plateaus. If I woke up with pain in my neck in the morning, nothing I did during the day would make it go; I had to wait til the next day and cross my fingers.

Finally, one day I had a particularly bad neck day after about five good days—five days when I thought things were finally turning around. I was feeling extremely frustrated. What on earth was wrong—and why wasn’t it getting better?

I remembered something my dad told me about his own back pain, years earlier. He told me he used to have terrible back pain until he and my mom bought a new mattress. After that, the pain had completely stopped.

I thought, what the hell. My current mattress was a thin memory foam pad from Ikea under a $200 spring mattress; I’d bought them both about seven years ago, when I’d first moved to New York. My pillows were old and pretty bad, too. And my computer chair—which I spent a lot of time in every day—was one I’d gotten second-hand in high school from one of my mom’s work friends.

Yeah, maybe it was time for an upgrade.

I dropped a lot of money on a new mattress, three new pillows, and a fancy new desk chair. They all came within the next two weeks. And after that, I finally started getting better for real.

More about that—and what I think actually happened to me—in the next post. Which I swear will be the last one.


  1. Lori Avatar

    My lord, Jen! My head hurts in sympathy! It’s absurd what you have had to go through just to get an answer.

  2. jennyfreakingwilliamson Avatar

    Thanks Lori! Yeah, it was pretty awful. Luckily I’m doing much better now 🙂

  3. gamby Avatar

    Jeezum crow Jenny I’m in suspense for your reprieve from this ordeal. You absolutely should treat yourself to the best bedding/pillows/sheets that you can afford or not.
    I suffered much back pain as a young construction worker and finally found pilates /massage/good bedding and am now pretty much free of that affliction. I only deal with psychic pain these days which is easier to manage.All the best for ya hon.

  4. jennyfreakingwilliamson Avatar

    Yeah, all those things made a huge difference to me too. Thanks!!

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