In need of a distraction

I am in desperate need of some light and cheery distraction (where’s Cath when I need her?!). For the second time in the past four months I am suffering from some kind of ergonomic misery that I seem to have inflicted on myself by over-indulging in computer-based work. The “phenotype” is severe neck pain that radiates down my right arm.

When this first began to bother me some time ago, I did what any busy scientist would do and ignored it, hoping of course that it would just go away. It did go, but not away–instead it went and migrated right down from my neck to my arm. At this point, the pain compelled me to finally see a doctor.

I happen to have a really great physician–one I arrived at through a rather difficult process of trial and error. My previous physician had scared the bejesus out of me by a number of rather “insensitive statements”, and I dropped him like a hot potato. My current physician, recognizing my complaint for what it is–personal abuse–sent me for physical therapy. Through an intense eight meetings, the wonderful and dedicated physical therapist was able to relieve my pain and get me back to the state where I could continue to abuse myself. And of course I did, which is why I am suffering a relapse far more painful than the original aggravation. This is despite the intense amount of strengthening exercises that I do daily–including the closing of a strong elastic strap in my office door frame in order to do rowing exercises in between bouts of writing on the computer. The former, by the way, has become an event of much merriment for my students, who come to watch and photograph me doing my exercises on their cell phones.

So by now, those of you who have reached this point without logging off your computers forever or tossing them out the window, you are probably wondering “is it worth reading on?” What kind of a “nudnik” is this guy? If your Yiddish is not up to par, a nudnik is a kind of irritating, tiresome type of person. Anyone come to mind? No, don’t answer–that was rhetorical.

There is a joke about how do you define a nudnik? The answer is: it’s a person who you ask “how are you?”–and he actually answers, in great detail.

After this rather long-winded beginning, I thought that I might finally focus on what I hope might be an amusing little anecdote. I was reminded of this as I suffered from some rather uncomfortable side effects from some of the pain medications that I’ve been taking.

This is a story about allergies and cats. Hopefully I won’t be offending anyone–as I know there are a lot of cat-lovers out there–but I’m a dog person and never really “got on” with cats. Anyway this goes back to my student days, when I shared a two-bedroom apartment with a mathematics student. He was a really nice guy–but well, a stereotypic mathematician. He often forgot to tie his own shoes, and he had some funny eating habits. For example, I guess no one ever taught him not to slurp his coffee. In the beginning I thought he was doing it as a joke, until I realized that “what you hear is what you get.” I thought it might have been more effective for him to put the powdered instant coffee on his tongue, and just pour boiling water down his throat directly from the kettle. But I digress.

One day I was asked to cat-sit for a few weeks, and I made the mistake of agreeing. This was a vengeful and unrepentant feline species, who being upset for being abandoned with a non-cat-lover, took out her revenge by crapping in every conceivable place in the apartment–except her litter box. To make things worse, she would sit on me when I was working, and when I need to get up to answer the phone or for any other reason, she would get angry and scratch me.

Soon after her arrival, I noticed that my flatmate began frequent bouts of sneezing and coughing. Immediately I suspected that he might have allergies to cats, but was afraid to make that suggestion because I had no solution if the problem was indeed the cat. After a week or so, he went to his doctor and the good doctor assured him that it was unlikely that he had any allergies to the cat.

The next afternoon when I returned home from classes, I noticed that my flatmate had forgotten to close his bedroom door. I walked over and saw the cat snuggled comfortably on his pillow. That night, I couldn’t sleep because of the incessant sneezing and coughing coming from my flatmate’s room. In this case, I knew that his physician was wrong.

Although in this case, my flatmate was not the cat owner and had no reason to overcome his allergies (once the friggin cat was gone), I have noticed that cat lovers will go to unusual extremes to maintain contact with these animals–delegating essential parts of their homes as “cat zones” and “cat free” zones, undergoing long-term desensitization torture and exposure to cat dander, and so forth. Now why would any sane person do that?

But then I recalled that my father, a pediatrician, told me once about a former pediatric partner who loved chocolate, but was seriously allergic (poor guy). It turns out that he would occasionally give himself a shot of anti-histamine and then go binge on the chocolate.

And then there was this other unfortunate loser who would take pain medication and do physical therapy/torture for his neck so that he could continue to write silly blogs… I guess it’s not so different after all.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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20 Responses to In need of a distraction

  1. Grant says:

    I’m sure you’ve already tried this, but allow me…

    It may not be relevant, but as a computational biologist—i.e. someone on computers for most of every working day*—I take care over the setup for desk. As a student I had pains in my right shoulder/neck. A little experimenting suggested that this was from sitting slightly askew with respect to the screen and keyboard. I’ve never really had it come back since I got the layout right.

    I won’t bore you with the details of computer workstation ergonomics – there is plenty on this on-line already**. The thing I found that helped me was to make sure the setup was correct, low desk height, screen and right height and distance and keyboard centred properly. (The centre of the main keys is to the left of the keyboard itself; assuming a full-sized keyboard, the numerical keys on the right should be to the right, as it were.)


    * And then some time in the evening, too!
    ** Then again, I might just add to the mess by writing about it… we’ll see.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Grant,

      I’m sure you’re absolutely right, and I’ve been quite remiss in taking enough care to ensure that my computer set up is ergonomically correct. Probably one of my major problems is that I don’t type properly. When I was in high school, I had the choice of learning Latin or typing. I chose Latin, and now I neither know Latin, nor how to type.

      I purchased a software recognition system which I am using now–so if you notice any weird mistakes, I probably didn’t do a good job proofreading after the dictation. Ideally, I would love for this recognition software to be installed in my office computer, but the Mac OS version is currently not compatible and I probably need to buy a new office computer before I can install the software.

  2. KristiV says:

    My only “expertise” in this area comes from teaching medical neuroscience and gross anatomy, for 5 and 12 years, respectively, but it sounds as though something is putting pressure on or otherwise irritating a spinal nerve, since the pain seems to follow a dermatome. That something could be a herniated IV disc, or a bone spur/compression at the intervertebral foramen. I know many people who can manage such conditions non-surgically, with appropriate physical therapy, and, as Grant suggests, ergonomics.

    Perhaps because of the medical neuroscience teaching, I went through a list of worst case scenarios a month or so ago, when I started having some blurring/double vision (diplopia) when doing close work such as reading. Diplopia can be caused by:
    1. cavernous sinus thrombosis
    2. brain tumor
    3. myasthenia gravis
    4. multiple sclerosis
    and, of course
    5. presbyopia associated with, errr, middle age

    Of course it was the latter, now corrected with progressive lenses. Now I’ve also got a knee problem, for which I’m going to go see an orthopedics PA, NOT a surgeon. The knee pain is exacerbated by sitting for long periods of time, and actually feels better with exercise. What a drag it is getting old.

    Here’s an article that might distract you – it was linked in an academics forum on Ravelry, and I suspect it’s not legit. I don’t know the field (sociology), but the guy seems to hit on all the trigger points for right-wing apoplexy about academia. What do you think?

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Kristi,

      Your diagnosis appears to be right on. As you note, the precise reason for the nerve pain isn’t clear- it could be a small fracture in the vertebrae, however unlikely. Or, as is most likely a mildly herniated disc or bone spur. I have optimism based on my previous experience with physical therapy–where the pain was gone in less than a month. Although not the end of the world, we have scheduled a car trip to cross the Continental divide and get to Mesa Verde and so the parks in Utah in the near future. My fear is that it is currently very painful sitting or driving a car and that we may have to abort. Well, the mountains won’t go away.

      That article certainly was distracting–and if it really was a legitimate commentary, the authors sure was quirky for a sociologist. Even taking into consideration right-wing political leanings, I find it extremely unlikely that a professor of sociology would talk or write in such a manner about academia. As you indicated it sounded more like an anti-establishment, anti-democrat advertisement.

      • Austin says:

        Nope, I ‘m pretty sure he’s real – you can check out what his students thought of him on RateMyProfessors. Inter alia:

        “love this class. If you’re right wing lol, i think you are going to like professor rubinstein”

        The political slant is clear, but it also possibly makes more sense if you remember that he is not a Professor any more – rather an “angry ex-Professor”. And one might be slightly curious about the “ex”.

        Given how p*ssed (off) he is, wonder if he’ll be giving the pension back?

        • Steve Caplan says:

          I loved this comment:

          “Nobody understands what he is talking about. Everyday he comes in with an empty coffee cup and takes sips throughout the class even though there is nothing in his cup!!!”

  3. cromercrox says:

    Dr Gee of Cromer suggests dropping a seven-pound hammer on your toe, or repeatedly banging your head against concrete. Either therapy should distract you from the pain in your neck.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thank you Dr. Gee for the suggestion. My wife was enamored with the 7 pound hammer therapy, and would’ve happily carried it out, except that I pointed out that this would provide me with an additional reason to complain.

      I think that argument saved my toe.

      • cromercrox says:

        But srsly, I think Kristi is right, sounds like you’ve trapped a spinal nerve, possibly by herniating a disc. I did this to a disc in my lower back aged 23 while lifting a heavy keyboard into the back of a car. The keyboard was a Hohner Clavinet/Pianet Duo, muso fans – the car was a Peugeot 205. Which was blue. But I digress. At the time I needed surgey and a lot of therapy afterwards, but since then didn’t have a problem until a flare-up last June, when I wasn’t lifting anything. Sciatica down right leg, numbness in foot, extreme difficulty sitting at computer (my then brand new iPad was a livesaver) NMR showed my disc had re-ruptured, but this time I didn’t
        have surgery – I met a therapist every few dqys for six weeks. He’d blast a zillion volts down my sciatic nerve and twist me into a pretzel, and now I’m pretty much fine.

        • Austin says:

          The Boss is not a fan of surgery in these kind of conditions, mainly because surgery on the back always carries risks, and there are generally non-surgical treatments (see Henry’s comment) which achieve essentially as good results. There are a subset of conditions where surgery definitely IS indicated, but they are apparently pretty rare.

          Appropriate pain meds + well-targetted exercises from a PT with specific expertise on the prob + better PC workplace ergonomics + getting up from the chair more often sounds like the “conservative” plan, but of course it sounds like that’s what you’re doing already.

          Maybe you need a holiday to get fit for your holiday, Steve…!

          PS Someone I know who worked in LA once told me that “nudnik” was a commonplace word there for someone who (i) turned out in front of you when you were on a fast road, thereby (ii) making you slow right down, then (iii) crawled along for 300 yards at 10 mph under the limit before (iv) turning off at the next intersection.

  4. Austin says:

    Steve:

    The Boss (who works as a doctor in Occupational Health and knows about this stuff) tells me that it is far more likely that these kind of things flare up when you are stressed out.

    Not much relief for an academic scientist in a University in saying that, though …!

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  6. KristiV says:

    Here’s a news story which, while utterly tragic for Texans, might provide some distraction and light amusement for everyone else.

    ::weeps for the wasted Dr. Pepper:: Oh, the fizzanity! I think I need to open my second can of Diet Dr. Pepper today in remembrance.

    • I’m guessing it was the hordes of soda-jonesing people stopping their cars to go scavenging for the cans of branded fizzy sugar-water that stopped the traffic…

      • KristiV says:

        Undoubtedly, since the love of Texans for Dr. Pepper surpasses even the greediest likings of normal people. What a cantastrophe!

        Several years ago, I got stuck in a massive Stau in Houston, caused by an overturned egg truck on an upper level of a freeway interchange. The egg contents dripped down on all the lower levels and ramps, where the mess cooked into a slippery goo in the early summer heat.

  7. (where’s Cath when I need her?!)

    Aww… someone missed me!

    I was on a plane on Sunday, with quite possibly the least leg-room, narrowest seats, and narrowest aisles I’ve ever seen. Seriously – you couldn’t walk down the aise normally without banging into people on both sides, so you had to walk sideways, like a crab, every time you needed the loo. Which, on a 10 hour flight when you’re prone to fainting caused by dehydration / low blood pressure and therefore drink a LOT of water on board, is really quite often. Fun! The bloke next to us was 6 foot 9 and had arrived too late to get a bulk-head seat; he was supposed to be in the window seat, but we let him have the aisle seat after seeing him sit with his knees practically up by his ears in order to fit into the space during take-off. No doubt he had some pain of his own to contend with the next day.

    But I digress. I hope you feel better soon, and my silly distracting blogging will resume some time this week.

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    Just to thank everyone for helping to distract me!
    Onward, physical therapy…

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