Sunday, October 9, 2011


I promised myself that I wasn’t going to write about this. Once I blogged about my knee replacement surgery and my Parkinson’s diagnosis, I decided that this wasn’t going to turn into a chronicle of my medical problems. Most illnesses just aren’t that interesting, and usually, they’re not very funny.

About a month ago, I developed an ugly, miserable disease with a silly, misleading name. When you’re a little kid, you get chicken pox. The virus stays in your body, and can return in later years (typically after the age of 50) in a different form, known as “Shingles.” Shingles is a disease of the nervous system, although it manifests itself in the form of a rash.

There’s a vaccine to prevent it, but it’s not commonly given because Shingles strikes less than 1% of the population. The medical community, in their wisdom, has decided not to publicize the availability of the vaccine to the 99% of the population who don’t need it. Instead, they’ll recommend it to those who have a known susceptibility to Shingles. The only way to demonstrate susceptibility is to develop a case of Shingles. Once the symptoms subside, your doctor will suggest the vaccine. You can ask for the vaccine, and your doctor will give it to you.

Ask for the vaccine. Trust me, you don’t want Shingles.

I’ve been suffering from it for a month now, and it shows very few signs of abating. I’ll describe it for you, even though I can’t imagine why anyone would be interested enough to read it, other than to convince themselves to demand the vaccine.

The whole thing started as a spider bite on my upper thigh. I have no idea if the spider bite triggered the Shingles, but the location of the bite and the timing just seem a bit too coincidental. The bite became inflamed and itchy, so I went to the doctor, who prescribed a course of antibiotics. At the same time, I started feeling a backache, as though I had pulled a muscle.

I followed my usual backache protocol, taking a muscle relaxer at bedtime. But by the morning, the backache hadn’t abated. Instead, it had intensified into a rolling series of intense, extremely painful spasms. I couldn’t sleep for more than 20 minutes an hour. The back spasms kept me out of work for a week. The spasms struck 3-4 times an hour, and each one felt like I was being stabbed by a red-hot stiletto.

Because the muscle relaxers hadn’t solved the problem, it seemed reasonable to conclude that the problem wasn’t muscular. So I let my wife talk me into visiting her chiropractor. I’m not a fan of chiropractors, but when you’re suffering, you’ll grasp at straws.

By this time, I was aching from head to toe, and had developed a rash in my crotch. When I say “rash,” I want you to think of old Biblical movies depicting lepers. The rash was blackish-purple, blistery and hot to the touch. It extended from the crease of my right leg up to my right hip, and around to my lower back. At times it felt as though biting bugs were crawling all over me.

The chiropractor attempted to “adjust” my back, but failed. The conclusion was that my problem wasn’t skeletal. I showed him the rash, and he rushed to the sink to wash his hands and insist that I see a “real” doctor.

The “real” doctor diagnosed the problem as Shingles, and prescribed an anti-viral medication designed to shorten the lifespan of the symptoms. By the end of the second week, the back spasms had diminished significantly, but the rash had grown and expanded. As it crusted over and gradually diminished, it left behind another problem, from which I am currently suffering.

The legacy of Shingles is something called “postherpetic neuralgia.” In simple terms, Shingles damaged my nerves, and the symptoms of the damaged nerves may persist for weeks, months, years, or even for the rest of my life. Everybody’s different, so I have no idea what to expect.

An area of my skin the size of two textbooks extending across my hip to my lower back has become hyper-sensitive to touch. A housefly landing on it feels like the talons of a hawk. A fold of silk brushing against it feels like a cheese grater. A cool breeze from a ceiling fan feels as though I’m being pelted with thumbtacks. Wearing clothes is agony. The spray of the shower is the seventh circle of hell. The back pain I initially experienced was the virus attacking my sciatic nerve. This nerve still occasionally provides me with sharp, painful reminders of the battle waged there.

I’m currently taking Vicodin and Lyrica to manage the symptoms, and they barely touch the problem. During the work day, I wear adhesive pads infused with Lidocaine to keep my clothing from grating against the most sensitive areas of my skin.

Lots of diseases have forbidding names: Gonorrhea, Eczema, Schizophrenia, Hemorrhoids, etc. Shingles sounds like the name of a children's party clown. If it was up to me, I’d change the name of Shingles to something more indicative of the pain and misery it causes, like “Roofing Nails.”