“È una compressione dei nervi cervicali” pronounced Dott. Paolotti having probed my neck and left shoulder, and to my huge relief then wrote out a prescription for a powerful cocktail of muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories along with an X-ray referral. I was not surprised in the slightest by his diagnosis: the constant searing pain shooting down my left arm like a never-ending bolt of lightning and two completely numb fingers that I had had for a good couple of weeks made it fairly obvious that the problem was a trapped nerve. It was on our trans-Europe ‘grand tour’ to the UK that an insistent knot of pain had set in by the time we had got as far as Calais, and by the time we returned home in mid-August having driven three-thousand miles and slept in eleven different beds along the way, that single knot had multiplied into a throbbing mass of nagging pain, so it was hardly surprising that a nerve had got trapped in the process.
Christina, the American chiropractor a friend had found for me and then chivvied me into seeing, had reached the same conclusion too. I had already spent several eye-watering sessions on the all-singing, all-dancing treatment couch at her practice in Macerata having my neck crunched and my spine pummelled as she set about releasing the knots, but it had soon become clear there was going to be no quick fix. So while I was reluctant simply to knock back ever stronger doses of painkillers, the cumulative effects of too many nights without sleep coupled with my near inability to perform a long list of everyday tasks that included things like fastening buttons, putting my earrings on and my contact lenses in, drying my hair, driving and, as I’m a mancina – left-handed, chopping vegetables, ironing, writing and even twizzling spaghetti round my fork meant that I was prepared to do pretty well anything – including having Mr Blue-Shirt saw my left arm off with a rusty bread knife- to stop the near unbearable pain.
By the time my X-ray appointment in Osimo came round a couple of weeks later, though, there were clear signs of improvement: I was sleeping through, I could sit at my desk for longer than ten minutes and my arm no longer felt as if it was someone else’s, with little connection between what I was telling it to do and what it would actually do. So when Dott. Paolotti opened the CD on which my X-rays were stored that I had picked up from the hospital the day before (X-rays belong to the patient here) I did slightly feel that they were only likely to be of curiosity value. Which turned out to be more or less the case. Leaning over his shoulder to look at the computer screen on his cramped desk in the village surgery, even my untrained eye could see that the disc between my sixth and seventh vertebrae was not as thick as its neighbours and that it was thinner still on the left side than on the right. All simply the effects of anno domini, apparently, which was fairly depressing: my first age-related health issue. Oh joy. And it did explain why a bog-standard knotted back – something that I have had many times before – had developed into something so debilitating. On another level, however, it was quite reassuring – after all, beyond a bit of wear and tear I had no real medical condition, or even a specific injury. And what with the improvement my arm and shoulder had at last made, it meant that Dott. P. and subsequently Christine were both happy for me to start running again. This was terrific news as I hadn’t even had my trainers on since mid-July and the lack of movement was really beginning to get to me.
I only came to running about eight years ago as therapy during a prolonged period of depression, but since then it has become a non-negotiable part of my life; part of who I am, even. These days, if I don’t run for any length of time, I start to feel both lethargic and restless at the same time, but it is the effects running has on my mental well-being that I miss even more. First of all, there is the head space that simply focussing on putting one foot in front of the other creates: essential for an Olympic standard worrier like me. Then there are the natural endorphins that running famously releases – and that before I started running I had always thought were a myth: they’re not. And when it comes to running beneath a cloudless blue sky in the staggeringly beautiful countryside that surrounds our home, the endorphin count easily doubles.
And so it did this morning as I ventured out into the late summer landscape that was bathed in golden sunlight and ruffled by a playful breeze. I followed doctor’s orders and took it easy, walking quite a bit as well as running, and keeping to a speed that meant I could keep my shoulders low and loose. I felt desperately unfit, though, with my breath rasping in my chest and my legs screaming for mercy on the hills. But it was wonderful to be moving again, to feel ‘me’ again, and at last to feel properly on the road to recovery.