Struck A Nerve

Early August of twenty and twenty-three I entered into a bout with COVID-19. Five days of fatigue and brain fog followed from a rapid onset of symptoms. Much like an unexpected storm, it dissipated as abruptly as quickly as it formed. The first day after symptoms cleared with a negative test felt like sweet relief. An allowance to continue on with life as usual. Then the second day a worrying scenario began to unfold.

I felt mentally alert but could slowly feel my right arm lose feeling on and off throughout the day. Phantom pangs in my heart and fluttering in my chest. A throbbing pain in my neck that seemed to pop up with no rhyme or reason. A feeling that COVID wasn’t done with its haunting, pulling from a grab bag of malady one last time before it would be fully expelled. I chalked these up to weird post COVID symptoms everyone likely had and takes some to clear.

The fourth night post recovery I couldn’t use my arm. I could move it but I couldn’t feel it. An overwhelming wave of panic and dread washed over me. The phantom pangs in my chest were back. An anxiety loop formed. My Apple Watch beeped with alerts. Just what the fuck was going on?

An emergency doctor’s visit reduced the vague symptoms to a possible heart issue. Inflammation of the heart sounded likely, though further testing the next day was needed. A follow up visit conjured woes of a thyroid disorder, whispers of cancer, a serious neurological disorder. COVID’s trashing on the way out still in progress. An unwelcome reminder I’m just an electrified meat coated calcium stick vibrating wildly in the planes of consciousness. After numerous tests ruled out heart and thyroid issues — everything looked as healthy as could be for a 31 year old man — my doctor began quizzing me on the totality of my symptoms.

An off-hand comment — pun intended — set my course for recovery. “A week ago I felt a small zapping sensation in my hand like I was being shocked.” My doctor’s eyes lit up and began more testing. An a-ha moment to follow. “Intermittent nerve impingement of the brachial plexus due to muscle spasms” read my official diagnosis and a referral for physical therapy. I walked out of the doctor’s office feeling a load lifted from my shoulders and confusion of what a brachial plexus was. Five days of brushing uncomfortably close with mortality whipsawing from one worse prognosis to the next and finally I had a clear answer to my woes. A face to the enemy.

The Path Forward

“How did a virus wreak havoc on my muscles enough to spasm and squish a nerve then send my sensory system in to a tailspin?” I wondered on my walk home. The question lobbed my head around as I picked up medication to begin my treatment. I keep myself in good health, I exercise frequently, I relieve muscle stress through deep tissue massages. Nothing added up for me.

My first physical therapy appointment spelled everything out. While I was making the right calculation – dispelling muscle tension as it builds — my numbers were off. Accumulating muscle stress in the first place was a non negotiable. More muscles were spasmed and hitting nerves in my back and arm. Inflammation from stress no friend in the matter. I was aware of my poor posture — and hindsight is 20/20 — when I tense up during focus, I’d compress my spine while drawing my shoulders in. A seemingly harmless stance. Paired with a poorly supported neck while side sleeping, vigorous keyboard and phone use was like a fissure in the earth building stress from plate friction until enough was stored to explode in a violent quaking. My muscular system revolted under duress. Inflammation from COVID enough of a trigger to shake the foundation and strike my nervous system in the process.

However, a bout with COVID had been a strange blessing in disguise. Viral inflammation to the degree I had brought my symptoms to the forefront instead of letting them accumulate for half a decade or more. I’d inevitably have to confront these issues head on in my life, now being the more opportune but more treacherous time to do so — recovering from COVID and managing nerve issues wouldn’t be easy.

Physical Therapy Is Not A Linear Journey But A Step Function In Improvement

There’s an element of physicality easily discounted working at a computer. How ever could you injure yourself so severely having the comfiest job in our modern age? It has all the silliness of an Oblivion NPC being felled in combat while eating an apple at first thought. While it doesn’t strike as a workplace injury on a construction site, it slowly builds over time and that required unlearning the terrible habits for my body I thought for years were actually good. Relearning how to sleep, hold myself, walk and use my arms has been an arduous journey. Undoing years of unconscious movement requires constant mental overload.

“Am I holding my back straight?”

“What was that creak in my neck for?”

“My hands are stiffer than usual, I should take a break”

These are some of the questions that take up my thought processes throughout the day leading to the inevitable realization I am too hunched over, my neck could use some stretching and I should go for a walk. An interruptive check in with my body. Physical therapy is not a linear journey nor an overnight one. It has at times felt like descending a mountain with some parts of the trail easy to walk before ending at a cliff face that requires a 10 foot jump down. If I think back to the start of my treatment four months ago, I feel fantastically better, a credit to my care team. If I think back to the last week, I’ve found a new phantom haunting me from within to thoroughly vanquish.

What Has Helped Me So Far

Physical therapy has been a bolster to my arsenal and I cannot recommend enough to someone who works at a computer or use a smart phone see a physical therapist. Our environments and reliance on devices have forced us to abandon healthy bodies until the ramifications strike hard and too late.

Part of this has been permanent habit correction which is another topic that’s going to be difficult to write about — I have yet to master maintaining healthy rituals for my longevity. When I can focus and do keep up, these resources and concepts have helped me recover and build up my flexibility.

Everyone Should Get Physical Therapy

If the 2010’s were the years everyone sought care from a mental health expert, I would hope the 2020’s are the years we sought care from a physical therapist. I’m not one to zealously give medical advice nor do I feel comfortable discussing my body in detail. But the nature of how I use a computer or electronics for work and fun — and I’m willing to bet it’s the same way you do — I now know lends itself to an injury that builds like a slow moving fault rubbing against another until it slips and tremors uncontrollably leaving ruin in its wake.