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The Elbert Files: Pain not what I thought it was


The “heart attack” I thought I was having a few weeks ago was actually the result of bad posture.

It began before dawn on a Tuesday. When I reached to turn on a closet light, I had a major muscle spasm in my back. I stretched and lay on a bed until the pain began to subside. 

When I got up, it came back worse and centered behind my right shoulder blade, a bit higher than the original muscle spasm. I lay down again. But this time the muscles in my back just got tighter and the pain increased.

I started thinking about my father, who had died of a heart attack while on vacation in Texas 27 years ago. He and Mom were on Padre Island south of Corpus Christi.

She said the first sign was a pain in his back, which Dad ignored until it became unbearable. When she finally called an ambulance, it took a half hour or more to arrive. 

Then, the engine quit while crossing the bridge onto the mainland. They coasted into a parking lot at the foot of the bridge and waited for a second ambulance. 

By then my father was unconscious. The blocked arteries in his heart had stopped the flow of blood. He was dead by the time they reached the hospital.

Dad turned 69 five days before he died. I turned 70 last spring.

As I thought about this, I began to panic.  

I woke my wife and told her I needed to go to the hospital. By that time, I was sweaty and clammy, and my coloring was not good.

At Iowa Methodist Medical Center, they rushed me into an emergency room and attached an EKG monitor. 

After a few minutes, a doctor said: “You are having a heart attack.” He explained that they were taking me to another room to do an angiogram. As he talked, a swarm of medical personnel descended on me.

An IV was inserted in my left arm. My right arm was strapped to a board so they could pump the angiogram dye through a line inserted at my wrist.

They asked if I was short of breath. No. Had I vomited? No. Did I have a history of high blood pressure? No. A family history of heart disease? Yes. 

The angiogram showed two 40 percent blockages and a couple of 30 percent blocks. 

Later, I was told that the blockages amounted to “mild” heart disease, but were not an immediate problem or unusual for a person my age. 

They said my heart was undamaged, and I was released some eight or nine hours after I’d walked into the emergency room. 

Later, my family doctor said the EKG reading, which had prompted the statement that I was “having a heart attack,” was “a conservative call” based on my erratic blood pressure, which was largely a reflection of my concern about what was happening. 

Knowing that I had not suffered a heart attack was a huge relief. 

But it did not lessen the pain that made it impossible to sleep more than an hour or two at night for nearly two weeks.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with a pinched nerve at the base of my neck, which I’m treating with physical therapy. 

My therapist says my problem was the result of years of bad computer posture. 

The irony here is that when I was young my father stressed good posture because his poor posture as a child had given him slumped shoulders. 

I thought I had good posture, but apparently not at a computer. I lean in and hunch my shoulders, which eventually pinched a nerve, causing pain that mimicked a heart attack.


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