“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” – Søren Kierkegaard
It’s now over seven years since I got ill.
Seven years… it’s such a long time right?
I never imagined seven years ago the way our lives would be so altered in one day.
In hindsight I don’t see the accident as the only culprit for these life altering diagnosis. Yes, the fall seemed to be the trigger. However, the more I have understood the conditions and my potential biological predispositions. The more I realise that it may well have been an injury waiting to happen. And if not THAT day and that fall…
It would perhaps have been another day, another trigger, that created a similar ‘explosion’ of symptoms, a leak, of an arachnoid inflammatory response.
I do have multiple thoracic micro bone spurs in my spine pressing into my dura (that holds my spinal fluid). As seen on a thoracic CT. So it was probably always going to be a risk that one day one might penetrate the dura. Or if not the bone spurs… maybe a spinal cyst (of which I have many) or some other dural weakness.
So as the quote above says … we DO often understand better backwards. Hindsight is often a great revealer – we often see things with more clarity the further on we go! And that can really help – so long as we don’t get stuck in that past, in the memories we can’t change, in the moments now passed. Instead we must choose to accept what has happened, attempt to reframe it and find the best way forward we can…
Despite it! Despite it all.
So that’s what I – what we – have chosen to do.
And embrace the life we have!
I have been meaning to write this blog update for a while. Well at least since I made these last two videos for my YouTube channel. The firstone I published in January is with my husband Matt and was a reflection on seven years since my original accident (a ladder fall) and trigger for the spinal CSF leak & arachnoiditis. The second video was a slightly longer video documenting how I manage my daily arachnoiditis & CSF flow/ intracranial pressure issues.
To make the videos easier to navigate I have included a breakdown summary in the video info section on YouTube. I will add a record of the video summary’s here. To to be able to skip to different parts you will need to view the video on YouTube directly by clicking on the YouTube link and take a look at the info section below the videos.
SEVEN YEARS SINCE MY ACCIDENT – A Reflection With My Husband
A reflective discussion with my husband Matt Hill about the challenges and positives of the past seven years since my ladder fall and development of a spinal CSF leak and arachnoiditis.
Summary of my accident and diagnosis. 1:00 min
1. What’s been one of the hardest parts of the last seven years? 2:18
2. What has been one of the positives of such a difficult journey? 7:00
3. What advice would you give to other spouses/ partners/ family members in this kind of situation? 9:30
MANAGING MY ARACHNOIDITIS – How I Manage My Daily Symptoms
This video is an update on my arachnoiditis/ mild adhesive arachnoiditis (AA) and how I manage to ongoing daily symptoms. I have not had a major flare in over a year but I do have many ongoing daily symptoms I have to micro-manage throughout the day to get the most out of my time.
Here is a breakdown of content you can skip to in video info on YouTube. The numbers signify number of minutes into the video:
0:28 Seven years of arachnoiditis/ mild AA
1:16 Current medication
1:57 Vitamins/ supplements/ diet
2:08 Walking physio
2:32 When people ask: How are you doing?
4:09 What does it feel like to have arachnoiditis/AA/ Spinal CSF Leak (active or in recovery)?
5:18 How did my fall cause arachnoiditis?
6:49 What does the arachnoiditis pain feel like?
9:49 CSF/ Spinal fluid flow issues
11:24 Standing is normally a better position for me
12:46 Higher Intracranial pressure (ICP) issues/ symptoms – common to those with arachnoiditis/ tarlov cysts and post spinal CSF leak
15:02 Problems with focus & concentration
18:33 How about driving a car?
19:07 Do I ever feel normal?
21:09 Do I have fears for the future?
I hope that the videos are helpful to others out there with both spinal CSF leaks / arachnoiditis or any other physical or mental health condition. It really is not at all easy navigating such conditions which is one of the reasons I choose to share my story. As you will see and have read previously, I am very blessed and privileged to have a very supportive husband, family and wider support network in our church and other supportive friends – both around me and online.
I really do believe we need others to make it through the immense challenges of these conditions.
So if you do feel alone today I would really recommend trying to find others to connect to – both around you or online through support groups. There are many groups available via Facebook groups, Twitter and other forums. Please don’t stay isolated if you do need support.
…And please don’t stay silent either.
Talking or writing really can help. Whether you show others or not. I am in a privileged position to be able to share my story publicly – others are not. But I hope that even when you can’t ‘find the words’ that my words might connect with you. So that you know you really are not alone. There are others – some better off and others worse off than you. Across the world many others are trying to find their way through dealing with and managing these conditions and their devastation on our lives.
I am thankful that in 2022 we have the internet to help us find one another so that our collective experience and voice might become even more powerful and increasingly louder – until more people are reached, understood and helped – both medically and holistically. So please do share my story with anyone who might listen – if you think it will help you and the cause in general.
Compassion and advocacy starts with you, and I, telling our stories and hoping that through them others might well be saved some of the additional pain we have had to face. We will then realise more and more that we face these awful illnesses TOGETHERand together we are surely so much stronger than trying to fight alone.
“Sit with hurting people. Offer them your presence. Show them you’re connecting to their pain. Listen to what they need. Weep with them. It won’t make them feel worse; it will make them feel welcomed into communion with you.” – Katherine & Jay Wolf
“My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever.” -Psalms 73:26 NLT
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
Today I want to write about HOPE, because hope is one of the strongest forces that can guide us through immensely dark seasons. Love is always the power that truly drives all I do. But hope brings energy to keep on going even when its presence is only the flicker of a flame in the darkest of nights.
”It’s always something, to know you’ve done the most you could. But, don’t leave off hoping, or it’s of no use doing anything. Hope, hope to the last.”
Today I am writing to remind you & myself that hope always lives & always remains even when everything appears hopeless. At those times we can often only see unending disaster & pain. Which can feel completely overwhelming to endure. But when we find hope we discover little rays of light that begin to glimmer & shine in the midst of the darkness.
So today I hope you will join with me and choose to HOPE again. In whatever area of life feels hopeless to you at the moment – I pray that you will find the energy to...
This is my ongoing story since that time. My real life story that reminds us that sometimes hope surprises us when we chose to stay the course. Sometimes it turns things around in ways we never imagined or expected. If we will just hold on hope can bring better days again.
Summary of My Ongoing Progress
In general, it’s been mainly good news regarding ongoing progress in my recovery since the new (but old) diagnosis of chronic arachnoiditis.There have been some great results over time from my new ongoing treatment protocol to reduce spinal canal nerve/ arachnoid inflammation & help to ease the pain of the damage already done. This includes various medications and a personal physio plan of continuing to walk a few miles a day over 2-4 separate walks and gently stretching my spine regularly.
Successful treatment has meant that I am now managing to be upright and do things for stretches of on average 10-12 hours at a time before I need to lie down to rest.I can then get up and do even more after 1-2 hours rest.
Which is massive progress because during the year following April 2019 (my last bad relapse/ flare) and my hospital admission after actuely relapsing in July 2020 – I could only manage a maximum of 4 hours upright in one go – normally only 2-3 hours max. I then needed at least 2 hours lying down flat before getting up for maybe 2 hours again, and that was how my whole day went! So all the very high levels pain and debilitating head pressure issues are much improved since I had the IV steroids (methlyprednisolone) in hospital and then continued under an arachnoiditis treatment protocol. My walking is also much stronger and generally good and my mental clarity much improved so I can do a lot more in the day at home & for our church as well as maintain a helpful walking routine.
Combination of Medications that Help
I continue to take 5mg prednisolone (steroid) every other day and 75mg diclofenac (anti-inflammatory that crosses the blood-brain barrier into the spinal canal) the day in between. I also take 4.5ml a day of LDN (Low Dose Naltrexone) as recommended by a US specialist & other arachnoiditis suffers. (This is not available on the NHS for arachnoiditis but prescribed & purchased privately from a registered LDN trust clinic. Although my GP & Neurologist have been informed I am taking it). I also take Omeprozole 20mg to protect my stomach and some other supplements including Pregnenalone to help nerve regeneration, Turmeric capsules for inflammation, Omega 3, calcium to protect my bones, vitamin B complex, magnesium & vitamin D.
Intracranial Pressure Headache Improvement
Interestingly, what we previously assumed were classic low pressure/ spinal CSF leak positional symptoms have greatly improved too with the treatment. Which suggests the arachnoiditis inflammation was probably more of a problem on that level than we all previously realised. Which is perhaps good news for other patients that might improve on medication and with more walking and gentle stretching too. IF they could have an arachnoiditis/ spinal canal inflammation element to their ongoing symptoms.
Much Less Debilitated
The main positive thing that has changed since the new diagnosis and treatment is that I am currently much less debilitated and do not need to lie down much at all. I can also manage a lot of the pain & symptoms better – by keeping moving, regular long walks, lying down when the pain and head pressure gets too much, being quiet for a bit… and in the meantime I can do & achieve a lot more as I said above, especially as my mental clarity is much better than it was.
Summary of Recent Improvements
So the never-ending battle continues but 2020 brought new gains that I never imagined could come without more invasive procedures. That experience this year has been something of a miracle in our lives. My husband feels that I am currently the best I have been in the whole nearly 6 years… and I would probably agree with him in many ways. Although there are elements of the lower spinal pain and stiffness that are perhaps worse than other times on my journey.
The Freedom Found in a New Perspective
I think understanding the new diagnosis helps a lot too with management and mentally/ psychologically dealing with it all.It really has been very liberating to understand some more of my strange symptoms & behaviour over the past six years better in hindsight. This is why seeking out more answers can be so helpful to patients like me. Especially those with rare conditions – because it helps you to understand yourself better & gives more explanations for why you sometimes act and respond in the ways that you do. Which is so helpful for your holistic health.
I really do believe in cases of rare illnesses that there needs to be more doctor & patient partnership in understanding new diagnosis. Doctors often do not have the time to fully research and understand more unusual conditions. But if patients and doctors can choose to more humbly learn together then that can help everyone. This is especially true in our newer age of the internet and online support groups. Patients often have the time to research, learn & explore things doctors just don’t have the time for when they meet very few patients with those conditions. This subsequently means that listening doctors can then help a patient understand it all better too, because patients often lack the wider knowledge of medical complexities that doctors are much better placed to help them understand.
In my own story I am still immensely grateful for every doctor who has had the humility to patiently listen carefully and to think outside of ‘normal boxes’ to help very unique patients like me hopefully discover more answers to unique questions about their medical conditions. Those doctors are very precious to us, especially when they help us over the long term so get to know you a bit more personally too.
Radiological Evidence of Arachnoiditis
We have at least made some progress on this level since my last blog article too.My scans have been looked at by a few different doctors now including neuroradiologists, neurologists, a neurosurgeon & an arachnoiditis specialist. The conclusions coming from all avenues is that there are various ‘suggestive features’ of arachnoiditis as well as some possible mildly Adhesive Arachnoiditis (AA) elements on my MRIs. This includes my lumbar spinal nerves being situated more towards the side and back of my spinal canal (first seen in retrospect on my first March 2015 MRIs which would support my theory that a biological predisposition as well as the fall and leak were the trigger – because those scans were done before I had had any spinal procedures). As well as some possible areas of mild clumping & nerve adhesions forming & some inflammation of the cauda equina nerve roots.
This is all actually all very in line with a diagnosis of chronic arachnoiditis. It is usually a clinical diagnosis based mainly on symptoms, but over time people will often display suggestive features of spinal nerve/ nerve root inflammation, swelling and positional shifting, which may also cause spinal cysts forming (incl. tarlov, arachnoid or similar cysts – as I have). Patients may also begin to show some suggestive, possible or probable mild nerve root clumping and adhesions evident on their MRIs etc.
Clinical Rather than Radiological Diagnosis
It has been reported to me that I have enough suggestive features of all of these elements to help support the clinical diagnosis of arachnoiditis.Although not enough to support a radiological diagnosis of adhesive arachnoiditis or cauda equina inflammatory disorder.
These findings are also in line with my own experiences of treatment. I had previously read that the steroid & anti-inflammatory meds will only really work on those in earlier stages of illness progression. So my radical response to both the IV steroids given in hospital in July/ August 2020 (500mg IV methlypredisolone a day over 5 days), the subsequent steroid taper and taking anti-inflammatories, in addition to lots of walking & some gentle stretching would support the theory that the arachnoiditis is present and potentially dangerous to me, but it has thankfully not yet advanced to a more severe permanent type of adhesive arachnoiditis.
This supports my theory that we may well have thankfully stopped a more ‘adhesive episode’ taking hold this summer. I really was extremely unwell and in unimaginable levels of pain in my lumbar & sacral spine and legs. Which without treatment could have well done more permanent damage to my spinal nerves – had we not halted its progression through aggressive treatment.
Arachnoiditis and especially AA can progress very quickly when it severely flares. This is why it’s of paramount importance that people are diagnosed & treated via a clinical diagnosis before it is so serious that it is more evident on MRIs.
Treatment will always work best BEFORE the damage has become permanent & radical enough to clearly show on scans. Specialists also tell us that scan evidence does not always correspond with symptom severity anyway. As with a lot of other conditions like spinal CSF leaks.
So the earlier it is treated the better. Ongoing treatment can also help to halt progression through flares.Which is of great value to me and other sufferers of this awful misunderstood condition. Knowing how to treat it can potentially stop devastating, irreversible damage to people’s spines and whole nervous systems.
Despite all the improvements – for which I am incredibly thankful – the reality is also that I believe I still have permanent damage to my spine from the arachnoiditis/ leak – because chronic pain is a normal significant daily part of my life. It is just much more contained than it used to be. This again would align with what is being seen on my MRIs.
CHRONIC NEURO PAIN IN MY SPINE & HEAD
It often feels like a ‘carpet burn’ sensation – like when the top layer of skin has been gashed off – but deep in my lumbar/ sacral spine and upper neck in particular. Or definite nerve pain and pressure flares in my spine & head. Sometimes that builds to more pin’s sticking into me/ stabbing pain. It also means my spine is very stiff which also leads to a lot of leg stiffness & leg pain too. Although lots of walking helps this. Also various movements such as bending, lifting, twisting, straining make all this worse.
PINS & NEEDLES
I also get regular intermittent pins and needles/ buzzing in & all over my legs and feet & sometimes in my hands and other places. I understand what people mean by saying it feels like ‘bugs crawling on you or under your skin’ (paraesthesia) but to me it’s distinctly pins & needles – but it’s like a buzzing that pulsates and moves about on the inside of my legs and all over the surface of my skin. Thankfully it has improved a lot on how it was during my last ‘flare’. These days it’s more annoying than debilitating and thankfully my feet no longer ‘burn’ like they did in the summer.
I HAVE TO KEEP MOVING: ‘RESTLESSNESS’
A key ongoing symptom feature for me (that I have heard is very typical of arachnoiditis) is that remaining sitting and standing in one position for too long exacerbates my all my symptoms, including spinal & head pain, leg stiffness, pins & needles and the feeling of pressure in the back of my head, whole head and upper neck which leads to more fogginess and sometimes even very bad nausea or hot flushes. I have often recently wondered if this is partly a CSF flow issue– as once I start moving around again or walking – it improves. The sensation is that my intracranial pressure builds in my upper neck & whole head – but it improves through gentle movement. Even lying down for a while can cause this to happen. The minute I get up my legs are all stiff and weak and my ears pop from the pressure changes.
What this means is that I can begin to feel very agitated and distracted if I have to stay in one position for a long time. This could be read by others to be an anxiety issue or simply a deep restlessness. But I now know it’s mainly simply a typical symptom of arachnoiditis, due to build up of pain and discomfort to high levels and the body’s natural reactions to that pain and discomfort in my spine, legs & head. As the video explains well.
CSF FLOW & PRESSURE ISSUES
This would tie in with various arachnoiditis specialist’s theories about CSF flow issues and high intracranial pressure problems related to arachnoiditis. On that level I have wondered if it’s possible that the small leak that has been identified in my ventral cervical (in my neck) spine by my NHS Intracranial Pressure MDT could possibly help regulate my pressure rather than distinctly making things worse and causing typical low pressure symptoms. Which I guess could tie into my cranial scans never actually showing low pressure/ SIH.
It may also explain some of my confusing symptoms that at times over the past 6 years have completely baffled neurologists as to whether it was low pressure, high pressure or another headache type or combination. I do often wake up with a headache or at least a ‘pressure filled head’- in the night or early in the morning and I especially struggle with very weak & stiff legs and a ‘full head’ if I have to get up in the night or early morning for the loo.
Although the CSF flow and pressure theories are mainly based on my own observations of my symptoms – I don’t really know the truth of it all of course. I have come to believe it’s all FAR more complex than my doctors & I perhaps previously realised regarding CSF / ICP / arachnoiditis links. Which again would make much more sense of my own medical journey over the past six years. Arachnoiditis is known to both sometimes increase intracranial pressure, but is also known to cause you to leak or seep spinal fluid too. So that again explains more about why my intracranial pressure dynamics are often all over the place & may well continue to be pretty messed up long term. Which would also tie into my general hypersensitivity to any pressure changes. Although again all these things have currently improved to less debilitating levels since treating the arachnoiditis which shows how interlinked it all is with the inflammationas well.
STRUGGLES WITH SITTING DOWN
Thankfully I can sit for much longer than I could – but only either with a very straight spine or leaning slightly forward. Although it is never a comfortable position for me and will make my head and spine pain & pins & needles worse especially after a 30mins to one hour or so. I can also feel very sleepy and nauseous after a while sitting which can makes me yawn obsessively (I again think it’s an ICP increase thing). So I again often have regular ‘getting up breaks’ when sitting alot. I will also be extremely stiff when I get up and have to get my legs moving quickly to get them working properly again.
Travelling sitting in a car is particularly bad for me too. If I travel in the car or drive I sit in a very strange position with the seat really far forward and very straight or slightly leaning forward. I have also invested in a ‘wedge cushion’ to use if a passenger – to help align my spine better in the ‘bucket’ type seats, which seems to help. Bucket seats are known to be very bad for arachnoiditis/ AA sufferers.
ONGOING PHONOPHOBIA & PHOTOPHOBIA
My head is still very sensitive bright and flashing lights, fast moving images & to the layering of sounds. I still struggle with lots of noise at the same time. Like music with a beat, or music in the background with talking, or a combination of other general noises. The music I listen to these days tends to be quiet & acoustic and I usually listen with headphones in my ears to block out some of the other sounds. But all this is much better than it has been for a long time and this Christmas I have been able to tolerate flashing lights much better than in previous years.
TALKING WHILST WALKING
Talking & walking is much better for me now which has been helpful when it’s one of the only ways to see people during the pandemic restrictions. But sometimes it’s still a bit of challenge especially if my head is already a bit flared. One of my worst movements whilst walking is attempting to turn my head to look at things or to talk to someone. That will immediately fill my head with pressure, make it cloudy and cause a lot of pain and pressure in my upper neck. The same thing happens moving my neck to look up or down. So my key is to walk with my head facing forward and my spine very straight.
I love to sing, especially with my husband, but singing has often been a key test of how bad my symptoms are since my accident. At their worst I cannot sing (or hardly speak) at all. Even during the first half of 2020 (pre-arachnoiditis diagnosis) my husband and I would often sing for our online church since the pandemic closed church buildings. But I would have to practice lying down then would only get up to record or live stream. But since my new treatment plan I can also sing more. A good example being our recording of Oh Holy Night for our Online Carol Service. I have not been able to properly sing this carol for the past five years especially because of how high it goes at the end. Normally singing that high would cause my head to full with pressure, make me feel drunk & cause me to need to lie down. But to our joy this year I managed to record this at home & this was actually done after a number of practices & a couple of takes – so that has been some encouraging progress.
GOING TO THE LOO
Going to the loo still a problem for my head & bladder. It still feels like either my pressure is increasing or I am quickly losing spinal fluid as I wee – as my head almost immediately feels very strange, full of pressure & my ears will often pop more showing a quick clear pressure change (like happens on a flight). It is also still often uncomfortable on my urinary tract which will still feel a bit irritated for a while before and after I have been. But it’s all much better than it has been in a while & especially in the summer. Previously I could often only go for a wee directly before lying down. Emptying my bowels also makes my head worse especially if there is any straining at all – which I avoid at all costs. Straining is not at all good for leaks or arachnoiditis.
MOVING FORWARD INTO A DIFFERENT SEASON
So it’s a mixed picture of massive gains made in the second half of this year, combined with a reality of continuing to manage many ongoing symptoms.
However, for the first time in a long time I have made much more progress & found many ways to stay busy & occupied within all my limitations. This has included helping the shift to more online church through video creating, editing and social media & website development. These are all things I can do, as and when I can, standing, sitting or lying down, either on my smart phone or for shorter bursts on the laptop. I also continue to help provide pastoral support – alongside my husband – for people in our church & connected to us. Although even a lot of this has had to shift online or over the phone this past pandemic year.
“The real work, the hardest work, is to pick up the pieces and decide how to put them back together again. The new thing that emerges may not work the way it used to, but it can bend and stretch and change us in ways we come to treasure even more.”
Suffer Strong – Katherine & Jay Wolf
That quote is precious to me because it describes my journey well. The past six years have been a marathon journey of learning to accept, adapt, stretch, bend & change according to my current abilities & limitations. My life journey since my accident has in no way been linear. Sometimes it’s been as changeable as shifting sands. Just when you get used to being able to do even more – you again simply crash, burn & relapse.
In those times of disappointment, in those moments I wasn’t sure I had the energy to start another recovery journey again, I found that I had to find ways to acknowledge the grief & pain but then allow myself to bend, change & be moulded anew. In those places I had to let go of finite disappointments & focus on…
A bigger Picture. A bigger Person. A bigger Presence.
… to carry me through.
Until, yet again I have found myself in the more peaceful place of slightly calmer waters. Having let go of who I once was and embracing the life I have been given now. Whilst choosing to allow it to be used to be a blessing & make a difference in others lives.
So that is the infinite hope that I cling fast to. A hope that is not based on the life I imagined, but is based on something far more significant. The the life I was given to live. So I must embrace all that it is – and attempt to use it for good. To make the difference in our world that only I can make. Reaching the people that I was uniquely called to love. And trying to offer hope to others overwhelmed by hopelessness.
Part of that process is continuing the task of simply telling my complicated never ending story – in the hope that it may become a ray of hope in someone else’s darkness. So today I want to tell you again to never give up. Instead choose to…
“Hope, hope to the last.”
Remembering that good can come again in our lives… IF we will only keep holding on and enduring for another day, another difficult season. However impossible that sometimes may feel.
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
SPINAL CSF LEAK INFO: Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.For more information about spinal CSF leaks please see the UK charity website at www.csfleak.info or the US charity website at www.spinalcsfleak.org.Please see this May 2018 medical paper about the 10 most common myths and misperceptions about spinal CSF leaks. It is by some of the top world experts in treating this condition.
Writing to explore what life is about. Amidst its captivating beauty and deepest pain. In the hope that we can learn, grow and be inspired together.