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When life is a pain in the neck

Just before my 30th birthday, I decided to test fate by plunging my car down a mountain slope.

Many years later, my mother told me that the car was such a wreck that my father started crying when he saw it. He knew I'd survived, but the sight of the twisted metal made him realize how lucky his daughter had been. I wasn't wearing a seatbelt, and I might be that one in a million who's alive thanks to my carelessness: instead of being pulverized in the car, I fell out before it hit the bottom of the ravine. It may have saved my life, but in the process I fractured my spine.

It's called a compression fracture, and it looks like this:


Imagine that you're squeezing a grape between your fingers until it bursts. That's exactly what happens to a vertebra, often in a violent vertical shock. You get the picture? I fell out of the car and probably landed in a rather brutal fashion on my bum. Or maybe my head. (That would explain a few things … )

It's an injury that's often sustained in sport or on farms, especially falling off tractors. If you're lucky, you'll only suffer a severely bruised spinal cord; if not, bone splinters could sever your spinal cord. Treatment varies from an operation to bed rest and back braces, but it always takes several months to recover fully.

When I was in hospital, there was another patient, a young man who used to be a farm worker, who'd suffered the same injury, also on the fifth thoracic vertebra, except that bone splinters had entered the spinal cord itself. He will be completely paralysed for the rest of his life. When I was practicing to walk again – oh, heck, yes, I had other leg injuries that made walking a ridiculously complicated procedure – I would struggle grimly down the hospital corridors, hanging on to my physiotherapist's arm, shuffling past the men's orthopaedic ward. The young man would lie in his bed, screwed into metal contraptions, and follow my progress with his eyes.

Eventually I refused to walk down that particular corridor. I couldn't cope with my own survivor's guilt.

Nowadays I walk normally, but the price I've had to pay is pain as a way of life. (I'm also 1 cm shorter than before the accident. As if I could afford that!) Usually it's discomfort rather than agony, but every once in a while my back unhinges itself and then … uh-oh.

The spine is a fascinating feat of engineering. Although my injury is in my thoracic spine, the interconnectedness of the bony bits means that it's usually my neck that goes into spasms. My pet theory is that the natural curve of the spine has been thrown out of kilter, so the guys at the top – the atlas and the axis – get a bit tired of their balancing act. That's when they "lock", as my physio says, and then the neck muscles go into a spasm, and then it feels as if you're in the Spanish Inquisition being tortured with a head crusher.


The nerves that radiate from your neck vertebrae lead to your head and arms, which explains why it feels as if I'm wearing an iron Alice band six sizes too small. Painkillers, with the exception of opiates, have zero effect.

My back started acting up towards the end of last year, and a week ago – when everything went haywire and I could barely get my arms into a jacket – I called Tokyo Physio, a collection of laid-back Aussies with magic hands. I can't recommend them enough.

The first few treatments, when they're trying to force movement into your vertebrae, are usually so painful that I've started referring to it as the Third Anglo-Boer War. I suspect the Boer side is going to lose this one, too …

Yesterday afternoon I had such a severe headache that I was on the point of walking out of a class. Yup, I teach at an eikaiwa on Saturdays, and yesterday I was blessed with an assortment of students that would cause even a healthy spine to crumble. One of them, a middle-aged salaryman, has reached the dubious distinction of being our current slowest student. It took me forty minutes to teach him the phrase "I'm going to Nagoya on Monday". When the bell rang, I asked him, "So, where are you going on Monday?" He answered, "I'm fine, you too, at January."

Rockets started shooting behind my right eye.

My next student was a certain type. They're all over the world, but they're more prevalent in Japan than in South Africa: female, no sparkle, no expression, no opinion, passive in a way that is both astounding and disheartening. I prefer a woman with balls.


It's a well-documented fact that students in Japan take longer to respond to a question than students in Western countries. It flummoxed me when I first started teaching here, but I've learned to wait. And wait. And wait.

This young lady, however, is in a category of her own. Fortunately there was a note in her file that warned me of her quirks, but despite that, I was startled by her torpidity. We were doing a reading exercise, and she had to find synonyms in an article. "Do you want me to help you," I asked her after a three-minute silence (I'm not exaggerating; I was timing her), "or do you want to do it yourself?" After three more minutes, she said she wanted to do it herself.

She's a reasonably high-level student, upper intermediate, so I shut up. I occupied myself with stretching exercises: tuck your chin into your chest and force your head backwards. It's an exceptionally unflattering pose, especially for une femme d'un certain age (the last time I saw 40 was on a speedometer), but it stretches the muscles around Messrs Atlas and Axis.

The student glanced up once and caught me in flagrante delicto. She gazed at me blankly. I pretended I was looking down at the book.

When I finally finished my last lesson of the day, my headache had turned into a full-blown migraine. I was nauseous, trembling, had blurred vision. I wanted to crawl into a hole, but … I had a dinner appointment with two friends. "Don't be a wimp," I instructed myself. "Balls? You want balls? Then grow a pair."

You may not believe the rest of the post, but I believe I've discovered a cure for migraine: Singha Beer from Thailand. We had dinner at a cheap Thai joint under the tracks at Yūrakuchō. We sat outside, huddling against oil heaters, eating Thai curry, kakpraating (I was particularly incoherent since my head was in another realm) and drinking beer. Halfway through beer number one it dawned on me that I was pain-free. "When did that happen?" I wondered in a befuddled way, and promptly ordered another one.


Four beers and one day later, and I remain pain-free. My advice if you have a rickety back? Forget about fentanyl and oxycodone. Just drink a few Singhas.

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