Q&A: How Tele-Health & Physical Therapy Can Help You Overcome Pregnancy Pains, Degenerative Disc Disease, and Sciatica
Nika Nichole Robinson is the definition of a great wife, mother, friend, coworker, student and human being who is now expecting baby number two. Mazel. The former Central Florida born and bred resident now resides in Manassas, Virginia, where her daughter, sweet not-so-baby-anymore baby, Novah, and her Marine husband, Nicholas, live, love, and laugh together (even on the bad days). This University of Florida graduate spends her time preparing for her family's newest addition while battling sciatica, arthritis, and degenerative disc disease.
So little time, so much to do — this female back pain patient gets stuff done. Whether it's physical therapy, holistic treatments or rest and relaxation, there isn't anything she won't try to find back pain relief all while being the best mom ever. It's no surprise when BackerNation found out this legal aid was warrior-ing it out in the age-old back pain fight, we had to get all the deets and share them back to you.
The dependable sister is courageous in every way because of her back condition and despite it. After all, courage is not having the strength to go on. It is going on when you don't have the strength. This is her story.
Q: Nika, it's lovely to speak with you today. Can you introduce yourself to our community?
A: Hi, Macey. I'm just as happy to be speaking with you. I love the family I was born into and the family that I've made. My husband and daughter are my world. I'm a Central Florida girl, literally born and raised and then some, who moved up north for my husband's military job. I'm pregnant with our second baby. My dream is to be a bankruptcy attorney and go to law school back down in Florida at UF. Black is my favorite color to wear. I love anything bold and live for music and movies.
Q: When did you first begin exhibiting symptoms of sciatica? Can you describe what your body feels like?
A: It was about one year ago, last July when I underwent breast reduction surgery because I was having severe back pain. My chest has always been on the larger size but never had I experienced back pain because of it. My body was essentially compensating because they were so big. I can’t lie, it was something I wanted for vanity purposes more so than back pain relief. Any women who have been pregnant before may be able to relate to what I mean.
I will say that the pain did play a pivotal role in me finally making the effort to schedule the surgery. After a long back and forth with my insurance company, I finally received approval to undergo the operation.
After the surgery, my back still hurt. I started getting really intense episodes of pain. I was confused because my boobs are smaller now so why do I still have the same pain? So, I went to my primary doctor in Sanford, Florida, where I explained the situation. All I knew was that my body was in pain and I didn’t know why. I needed answers. I needed relief. I honestly couldn’t be touched without hurting, specifically in my lower back and butt area. If I stood for long periods at a time, well, I couldn’t stand for long periods at a time because I’d feel fatigue, soreness, tiredness, and tenderness.
I once told my husband, Nick, that it feels like a permanent Charlie horse almost underneath the buttock.
Q: In your opinion, what is sciatica?
A: I tell my physical therapist that sciatica is a pain in my butt because that’s exactly what it is. Pain radiating along the sciatic nerve, which runs down one or both legs from the lower back is the actual definition. For me, it started off as back pain then turned into a pain in my butt, literally.
Q: Did it take your doctors and medical team long to pinpoint the cause of your symptoms? Or, was it clear-cut?
A: When I went to the doctor after my surgery needing answers, I actually had already done my research. Thank you, telehealth! I self-diagnosed myself with sciatica. I remember telling the doctor, “I think it’s sciatica.” The doctor responded back, “Well, OK...”
I truly knew the pain was from sciatica, but because I mainly felt only tightness in my back and didn’t have leg pain, she (the doctor) didn’t think that was why. She said, “We will do some X-rays to start and go from there.”
Since my insurance had approved the breast reduction surgery, why would it take any time to complete a simple test? I remember having to fill out so many forms. Once the X-rays came back, the doctors were able to specifically pinpoint the exact cause of my symptoms, but I will say that it really wasn’t cut and dry.
Q: Do you have any other back or spine condition that contributes to your daily pain?
A: When I got the X-rays done (and approved by my insurance) —the results came back, and I honestly couldn’t believe it. I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, arthritis and nerve pain —from sciatica, which was kind of like pulling teeth to get my doctor to admit. (After Nika replied with her official diagnosis, I called her Doctor Robinson because she called it. Thank you, telehealth is right!)
Q: After your diagnosis, what treatment options did your doctors recommend to help your daily pain?
A: Physical therapy (PT) was the number one method of relief that I was recommended for, however getting my insurance to approve PT was harder than approving my surgery. Again, with the forms. I had to detail my medical history and relevant information —basically checking the boxes because insurance companies need this information to ensure I was making the effort and doing all I could to help myself before going under the knife. I didn’t want surgery. I just wanted to get better without it, which is why I wanted PT so badly.
After PT was approved, I had my first consultation. I began explaining to him my issues and showed him my X-rays from my primary doctor who was pushing the DDD diagnosis on me more so than sciatica because of the lack of leg pain. The physical therapist was baffled that my doctor had pushed past my sciatica diagnosis. She wanted to solely focus on the DDD, and all I knew was that I wanted all of my pain gone. This goes back to when I said the diagnosis wasn’t cut and dry. Yes, they were able to pinpoint the cause, but it seemed that each specialist had a different take on it, which could then affect the treatment options allotted.
And of course, they make you go back and forth, so, after my consultation for PT, I went back to my primary doctor because I did need her to give me the official prescription for PT. My doctor said, “So how did it go. What did he (the physical therapist) say?”
I explained, “Well, he thinks I have sciatica.” She literally said that all physical therapists think that. You may have nerve pain, but I really don’t think you have sciatica. I’m like, 'What do you mean?' You are not a back doctor, you are my primary OBGYN, and back pain is his actual job. My doctor then reiterated to me that I was not experiencing any radiating pain down my legs, which is a symptom of sciatica. I had pain in my lower back and butt, which are symptoms of sciatica too. Ultimately, she gave me the prescription for PT.
Q: Can you give us some information on your experiences with physical therapy and how it’s helped your back pain levels?
A: All I can say is that PT rocks. It is my life savior. I go two days a week. At first, I was nervous because it was something new, but now I don’t dread it at all. It’s funny because after the first session I literally said, “I hate it. I’m not going back.” I obviously went back, and thank God, I did. I actually look forward to it because it’s an hour of peace. For once, it’s all about me and my pain. We’ll do various strengthening exercises, stretches and then he alternates between hot and cold therapy.
I will say the cold therapy works really well for me. He iced my back this one time, instead of using heat and honestly, the pain levels were basically gone for an entire week. After the ice therapy, I kept asking for it again. “Please ice me,” I’d say. I think my body really liked the calming of the muscles rather than heating it up. I haven’t needed to do it at home, but I very well could with a bag of frozen veggies.
The next day, after any session, I know I’ll be super sore, but almost a good sore. I know that the pain would be temporary because of the work I was doing. Nothing is ever off limits. He didn’t want me to not enjoy my pregnancy because of my pain. But because I am pregnant there are a few things we cannot do, but he didn’t limit my recovery because of my pregnancy. And with PT, you have to maintain your appointments. You have to go and keep going for it to really do its job.
Q: Has your back pain diagnosis affected your ability to work? If so, how do you cope with the pain while on the job?
A: I’ve been with Nordstrom for a few months now. I had to move away from a position where I was standing in one spot all day and not moving because my back would fatigue and be sore. After I moved to a position where I’m able to move more, it helped a lot rather than standing in one spot. I do get cramps in my butt that literally stop me dead in my tracks. That’s when I know I need a break, and I’ll take that break. I’ll find a free fitting room and do hamstring stretches for a few minutes then go back.
Timeframe wise, those cramps are what made me make an effort to get checked out and start PT. Luckily my physical therapist gave me exercises that I could do at home or at work whenever the pain flares up. Ironically though, I had read on several holistic websites the exact exercises so I kind of already knew what to do and that reiterated the fact that I really wasn’t that far off base when doing my research online. I owe a lot of my knowledge to tele-health and the fact that so much information is right at our fingertips. Sometimes, it's just hard to pick out the credible sources, so I'm really glad you guys exist to do that for us.
Regardless, there are better days and there are worse days. I want to contribute to my household and I love working so I tough it out and do the best I can. Luckily, with all of my updated routines, I can make it through the day.
Q: Are you open with your coworkers about your back pain and wellness journey?
A: Honestly, I try to tough it out because I don't want them to view me as this weak pregnant lady. I shouldn’t care, but with wanting to be promoted and stuff like that, it’s just best to keep my pain to myself while I’m at work. If needed, like I said, I’ll go hide in a fitting room and do those stretches. I will say that most days, my pain is a 7 (out of 10) at the lowest, but I try to keep busy and continue until the end of the business day. There are a few coworkers who are now my friends that I have confided in. And, ironically, an older employee has back issues just like me. I remember one day we were exchanging exercises and tips. She encouraged me to continue with PT because her husband has sciatica, did PT, and came out on the other side. It completely changed his life. After that, I was convinced.
So at work, people are either a) supportive or b) don’t know, and I’m okay with keeping it that way. A lot of people don’t know what my conditions mean or even are. I’ve gotten asked why I’m walking a certain way and I begin to tell them it’s from sciatica. They normally go, “What’s that?”
Q: Has your pain affected other areas of your life, relationships or your social schedule?
A: I have a really supportive husband and I feel so lucky for that. If I come home in pain, he’ll ask, 'Is there anything I can do? Do you need the heating pad, or can I run you a bath?'
The worst thing is not being able to pick Novah, my daughter up. It’s terrible. A lot of days consist of me just sitting because it’s hard to get up and go places. It was especially hard physically to function when playing at the park with her. If I could sit, I sat. I’ve noticed that I hurt less when I sit so when I need a break, I take one.
For a while, Nick thought I was super fragile so he was a little hands off with me, but did that affect our relationship? No, not really. And, Novah doesn’t care what I do, she just wants to be with me and I her.
Q: Is this pregnancy different from your last and if so, can you explain? (i.e. are you high risk, in more pain, etc.)
A: Bodily wise, I am the same weight and height. I am a few years older, so I am unsure if that is the reason for this extra pain. I remember asking my OBGYN, “Is the pain going to go away when I stop being pregnant?” They obviously cannot predict the future. They weren’t sure if my pain was aggravated by the baby or not. I’m 25 weeks so I suppose we’ll find out when the time comes.
In regards to pain, I am in more pain this time around, I would say, but it’s just been different entirely. With my firstborn, Novah, I didn’t have any pain – only pain was emotional distress because Nick was overseas for the Marines and my sister was sick with a terminal illness. I also feel more tired this time around. Luckily, I’m not high risk just dealing with my personal pain.
Q: Are you nervous to give birth? Do you think that will exasperate your pain?
A: Probably not just because of the epidural. It’s funny because when I was pregnant with Novah, I didn’t want to have one. I wanted to try and do the natural birth, but she was late so they had to induce me to get her out. She really didn’t want to come out though. I remember the doctor saying, “If you hear a loud ringing and your heart starts to beat really fast, speak up because that means I’ve hit a nerve.”
I remember glancing at the monitor as a ringing in my ear began. I thought this can’t be. I look over at the monitor again while the ringing gets louder. My heart rate was 250. I felt like a cartoon when you can see a character’s heart begin to pulsate of out his or her chest. I yelled, “OK, you’ve hit something.” The doc obviously tapped a nerve and ironically, before that moment, I never had any form of nerve pain. I can’t help but think if that is what caused my sciatica diagnosis?
Q: That's scary. What did the doctor do next?
A: Luckily, my doctor pulled the needle out and the ringing went away immediately. My heart rate went down to around 100-something. It was not a fun experience. Then, hours later, I start pushing and could feel my left leg, which I thought was odd because normally you are numb from the waist down.
There was a knot in the tubing that’s pumped the medicine into my back, so I stopped being numb, which caused the drugs to dull down and me to feel everything (not as bad as without, but still felt some contractions). Then baby Novah was born and it made everything worth it. (Ironically Novah was sitting next to Nika during this Q&A and wanted some crayons. Nika got her crayons and Novah began to draw in her brand new coloring book with a huge smile on her face. It was a really cute moment). All of this, (pointing to Novah and touching her belly) is why I am looking forward to giving birth to baby number two.
Q: What changes can you offer any of our pregnant Backers to alleviate some of their pregnancy back pain?
A: The biggest thing I will say is to change your routine for anyone pregnant with back pain or someone with back pain in general. Nick and I have done things at home to modify up our routine in order to help my pain levels. We put in more effort and started to pay attention to certain things or chores that worsened my pain.
My bedroom is like a throne with so many pillows. My husband and I always joke about that. Sleeping was one of the worst things and now with changing everything, it’s so much better. I literally dreaded it. I’d tell Nick that it felt like I was digging myself up out of bed. I felt like I was sunken in and would have to heave up to switch positions or rise from bed in the mornings. We went to Walmart and found a mattress cover that adds more support to my side of the bed. We are opposites in that I like the mattress firmer and Nick likes it softer. Also, I got myself a body pillow for the pregnancy and that has helped a lot, paired with an overload of better pillows — I sometimes feel like a queen when entering it.
I will say that I love soaking in the tub with Epson salt after a really bad day when my entire back is hurting. We always have Epson salt on hand because it does really help. You may want to consider that too.
Also, it’s important to keep an open line of communication with your doctor. I do. They need to know that you are in pain and how your body feels. Even though my pregnancy is going well, I still hurt and I make sure my doctor knows. I will say that I’m really excited for the epidural (Nika added laughingly).
Q: Can you speak about your role as a caregiver and some of the challenges you face?
A: I have a really supportive husband, but on the days when I don’t work in the mornings, it was really hard for me to bend over and get her out of the crib. Nick and I sometimes have opposite schedules where I’m home in the mornings and not in evenings and vice versa for him.
Almost every morning though, the first thing I do is bend over and get her out of the crib. I literally couldn't do it anymore. I told Nick we need to put her in a bed or you need to get her up because I can't. So, we took the crib out and bought her a big girl bed. We are all about finding the solution to the problem instead of dwelling on “woe is me” — I mean what else are you supposed to do? I’m not the type to sit and suffer. Yes, I could be laying on the couch crying, but I want to do something about it. I want to be out in the yard with my daughter, living.
So yes, he had to pull more weight in-house than he was used to, but we are a solution-driven family. We wanted to make life with this as easy as possible for everyone. We pull our chores 50/50 and care for Novah 50/50 too. We are a team. That’s what marriage is all about. I will say that I did feel bad for a while. After working 8 hours, Nick had to come home, do housework and help with Novah because I couldn’t. I will also say that having him around has been much easier than without.
Q: Has your pain levels affected your mental health at all?
A: At first, I was mad at my doctor for thinking that I was making my pain up. They made me feel so awful because I knew I was in pain and didn’t feel right but no one knew why. Then I went out and self-diagnosed myself, and turns out the sciatica was indeed a part of my diagnoses. Being right made me feel vindicated.
This is going to sound terrible (and please don’t take this comment at face value) — I just don’t have time to be sad about this anymore. I’ve spent a lot of time being sad in life —before Novah, after Novah and moving across the country from Florida to Virginia for Nick’s job. It’s been tough. My whole family is still down south and I’m here. I’ve made a lot of great friends who are moms and do the things that I do, which helps. I already have so much head space taken up by these things so finding the solution is what made dealing with my back pain the easiest way to handle it.
Q: What advice can you give to our Backer community?
A: Always take a break when you need one. Sit down. Your well-being is important. You matter. You are only as good as how you feel. If you feel weak, take a breather. Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Listen to your body.
Q: Finally, what’s the most positive surprise you’ve learned about yourself while living with sciatica and DDD?
A: You know how they always say to trust your body? I’ve never had an injury like this before so I didn’t trust what my body was telling me because I didn’t know my body was “talking.” Once I put the trust in the fact that I was in actual pain, I began to take the steps to get better. I take aches and pains very seriously now.
I am also finding out that I am stronger and weaker than I once thought, which is a big one too. Stronger mentally and even physically because of PT, which is hard and terrible, but coming out of it on the other side and feeling great makes me feel stronger all over, maybe emotionally and mentally too. It was just knowing physically that I was stronger than I thought I was. And, at the same time weaker. If I’m in pain, I’ll do a quick stretch on the floor. It’s OK to slow down. And it’s OK to take the time for yourself, which is huge as mother, wife, and caretaker.
It was a pleasure speaking to you, sharing my story and finding out all the great things you guys are doing at BackerNation. Macey, thank you for having me today.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Faith is the taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase,” — and Nika continues to walk in her gracious high heels down the staircase of life without hesitation. She is sure she will get what she hoped for, even though she's unable to see her next step. It is being sure of what we cannot see and carrying on anyway.
BackerNation is honored to have received the pleasure in speaking with this young lady — filled with a love for the world, faith, and this contagious zest for life, which we think may be contagious (in the best way). Nika is airborne — she clearly can't be stopped and we don't intend on stopping her. Thank you, Nika!