Alan Chartock | I, Publius: Sometimes, the internet actually can cure one's ills

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Have you ever gotten nervous about an illness and resorted to checking out your symptoms online to find out whether you have skin cancer or kidney or bladder cancer or some other perceived disease?

Before you even call to make an appointment at the doctor, you're checking out the resources on the internet and self-diagnosing. This has got to be driving the medical community crazy.

But even before there was an internet, doctors would tell me, "Beware the man with a list!" Since then, of course, I have heard doctors thank people who came with a list. Unfortunately these days, primary care physicians are judged by how many patients they can see in the shortest amount of time.

Most of the time, your thoughts about what you might have turn out to be wrong. My primary physician, Dr. Paul Lemanski, says that seeking medical help online can be very dangerous. "There's all kinds of stuff up there," he cautions.

True, but every once in a while you can really be saved by something you see on what my friend Ray Graf calls "the interwebs." Let me tell you one such story.

I have had two spinal surgeries performed by Dr. Jian Shen, a genius I know who operates on backs out of Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville, N.Y., and St. Mary's in Amsterdam, N.Y.

With the use of robotic surgery, a minimally invasive procedure cured a case of sciatica that had plagued me for years. I was in chronic pain and then, zip-zip and one night in the hospital, my sciatica was cured and I was extraordinarily grateful.

Some years later, I began to develop serious back problems as a result of lifelong scoliosis. When I asked Dr. Shen if surgery could help me, he agreed that he could. This was a far more ambitious procedure involving screws and all sorts of hardware. Again, it involved just one night in the hospital.

This recovery wasn't quite as easy. I would wake up in pretty severe pain. It would generally diminish as the day wore on but I was not a happy camper. I did my exercises every morning, iced the area, and wore a stabilizing belt around my middle, often with an ice pack stuffed in it to dull the pain.

But every day, the same thing happened. I'd wake up in pain. Often, but not always, things got much better during the day. Every once in a while I relied on ibuprofen to help out but I was never really sure whether it did or not.

Then one day I was really feeling sorry for myself and I refer you back to the beginning of this column. I looked up "sleeping, pain in the morning, back" (not necessarily in that order) and a whole bunch of stuff popped up. One thing that caught my eye was a piece of advice about not sleeping on your stomach. I suffer from sleep apnea but only when I'm sleeping on my back. As a result, I am a tummy sleeper and there was the dilemma. If you sleep on your back, you snore. If you sleep on your tummy you do not but your back hurts in the morning. It was recommended that you sleep on your side and that's what I have started to do.

Obviously, I do not want to screw things up by claiming victory. I still have some residual back pain. I did get a shot into the sacroiliac joint but my sugar numbers went up through the roof and I'm not about to do that again. But I have now enjoyed several pain free days and that's the first time that has happened in a long while. Let's remember the estimate that 80 percent of the American public will experience back pain at some point.

As for me, I'm grateful for the internet.

Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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