So, I’m in the middle of what has proven to be a fairly long phase of wince-worthy to kill-me-now back pain, and bending and stooping day after day, hauling boxes out of cramped storage areas, and shifting government docs around for hours at a time hasn’t helped it one bit.
I like to be able to say “I’ve tried everything,” but until recently, I couldn’t quite because I hadn’t yet worn one of these babies:
Care to guess what it is? Numerous people in my life have made a wide range of creative stabs: My nephew wondered if I was becoming “bionic”; several neighbors thought it was a cell phone; at least one coworker misidentified it as a device used to measure blood sugar levels; another correctly identified it as a device that controlled electrical impulses but thought it was some kind of gadget to stop incontinence.
In fact, it is a portable TENS unit, TENS standing for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, which is, of course, what the device provides.
The principle upon which it operates is a simple one: given that the sensation of pain is little more than an electrical impulse sent along a nerve pathway, a TENS unit sends it owns wave of electrical impulses through a specific spot on the body, essentially jamming the pain signal. In reality, when functioning correctly, what the device does is generate an artificial and ongoing sensation of pins-and-needles which, while not exactly painful, does take some getting used to.
In previous courses of physical therapy, I’d had TENS applied to my back after training sessions. But those were big, bedside models. I’d never worn a personal TENS unit. Thus it was that, roughly four Tuesdays ago, I found myself spending a half-hour with the helpful sales rep of the EMPI Company, the maker of the unit I was going to wear on a trial basis for the next month of so. The rep showed me how the device worked, and here I have to say, it’s not as effortless as it might seem at first glance.
For starters, to effectively target your pain, you have to apply no less than four electrodes–each of which affixes to your skin by means of the world’s coldest sticky gel (try slapping those on top of your ass first thing in the morning). Then you have to play around with the settings to find a rhythm of electrical current that best blocks your pain.
At this point, the sales rep made the wise suggestion that I ramp the setting on the TENS unit to the very edge of my pain threshold, just to see what I could comfortably stand. So I slowly adjusted the control button from setting 1 to 2 to 4 to 5 to 7 and so on. At about 11.5, I could feel my lower back and glutes begin locking up involuntarily as the current coursed through my lower body. Not pleasant. So I set the unit back down several notches and eventually found that a setting of 4.5 comfortably blocked out my pain.
I went to work with the unit the next day and it was almost like a miracle. I sometimes have to sit all day, which I don’t have to tell you is hell on the back. But with the TENS unit thrumming quietly through my low back and hips, I essentially felt nothing, like my back was asleep, really. It was wonderful.
Until I went to the meeting.
I think that in just about any other circumstance, I would have been fine. But that day, events conspired to create one of those perfect-storm moments without which my life would just not be complete.
For starters, I’d already been wearing the unit for most of the day–since about 7 AM, in fact. It was 3:30 when the meeting was called. I usually remove the electrodes around that time–I find that the gelled sides of the electrodes are pretty well dried out by then and don’t stick so well to my skin–but removing the electrodes means untucking my shirt and fishing around in the back of my pants in a manner you really don’t want to exhibit in front of your coworkers, especially at this meeting, which was filled with high-level administrators, as well as some peon mid-level supervisors like me.
For another thing, I was wearing a pair of trousers bought during a brief, freak episode of weight gain, when I dressed out at an extra 16 pounds. These days I’m back down to my normal weight, so the trousers, though comfortable, were a bit baggy.
So when I stood up to go into the meeting, see, I didn’t realize that one of the electrodes had fallen off the top of my hip and was now resting in the seat of those baggy trousers.
And the hell of it was, I still didn’t feel a thing for some minutes into the meeting. Then I turned to grab a piece of paper from a colleague sitting next to me. That’s when the buttons on the front of the TENS unit rubbed against the armrest of the seat in just the right combination needed to disable the button lock on the unit.
So when I brushed against that armrest the next time, the TENS unit was jogged suddenly from its sedate 4.5-level setting.
To level 24.
Now, I’d like to switch your perspective for a moment.
Imagine that you are a fairly highly placed administrator for a large university library, and you’re about three minutes into a fairly intense brainstorming meeting packed with librarians and bright people from all over the library. Sitting across from you is a staff-level supervisor you know from your many visits to and meetings with staff at the library. You can never quite remember her name, but you know her to be an animated and jocular young lady, usually full of witty things to say, and a good kind of personality to have in a brainstorming meeting. Or so you thought.
You’ve just handed out an agenda and are making a few opening remarks when all of a sudden this woman snaps to in her chair. Her eyes are wide and her mouth is opening, but no sound is coming out. Her hands twist into two trembling fists and then her whole body begins to shake violently. Before you can even form a thought to utter the words to ask what the hell is wrong, this woman suddenly and, it appears, quite involuntarily, jerks half out of her seat and does an impromptu impression of Elvis Presley dancing, slamming the side of the table three times–hard–with her pelvis–BAMBAMBAM–slopping drinks and scattering papers. She appears to be in the throes of an epileptic fit, or some darkly unnatural spasm. And now she is making sounds–at first they are strange, strangled “Nuck! Nuck! Egggarrrhhhhh!” noises, but they quickly shift to a kind of hyped-up, ululating, effeminate yipping. Now she’s swinging her arms wildly, smacking at her right hip, where she appears to be trying to beat away a small square object (is it a cell phone? A blood-sugar device? An electronic bladder control unit?). Finally, she snags two black wires and yanks them free, pulling a surprising amount of slack and most of her blouse up along with them. Then she goes still, panting, her hair practically standing up on end. She stops and looks sheepishly around.
The room is dead quiet.
The young lady knows better than to hold a press conference. She mutters an abashed “sorry” and dashes from the room.
But one thing’s for sure: You just remembered her name, and now you’ll never forget it, not for as long as you live.