By James Fell, Special to Tribune Newspapers
7:47 PM EDT, June 13, 2012
It wasn't just any raking job; it was dethatching to get all the old, dead grass out. That's hard work. You have to dig in and put some real muscle into it.
The pain in my rib cage started the day after the dead grass was bagged and bound for the landfill. The next day I had considerably more discomfort on my side and, much to my neighbor's relief, I skipped my Saturday morning ritual of hard rock and heavy lifting, a session in which I blast my pecs and blare tunes in equal measure. The following day I was even more messed up. My entire right side was on fire from hip to armpit. I kept imagining going a few rounds in a boxing ring and taking a hard hook to the ribs. Things felt broken. And hot.
But it still felt like musculoskeletal pain, and it didn't make any sense that it would continue to get worse day after day. That night I barely slept. My wife, a family physician, asked, "Do you have shingles?"
"No. I don't have shingles. What's a shingle?"
Shingles is chickenpox two-point-oh. The virus lies dormant but can recur as shingles, which is an infection of nerves and the skin around them. It starts with tingling, then pain and then a rash.
My wife checked me over. No rash, just pain. I lamented that it didn't make sense that someone who exercises as much I do could be laid low by raking.
Well, the next day my side was covered in a rash that felt as if I had been punched in the side with a bucket of black flies. I got on anti-virals and felt slightly better about not being a raking wimp.
Shingles is more common in the elderly, with half of the cases involving those older than 60. And there is a vaccine available that doctors — my wife included — often recommend for older patients.
People with compromised immune systems from HIV/AIDS or cancer treatments are in the high-risk category. My wife suggested it might be from pushing myself to the wall running a marathon last March, creating too much stress on my body, which coupled with a muscle tear from raking gave the virus an opening.
While shingles may be on the rise, eventually it should become less common because of the chicken pox vaccine. That's a good thing; I learned the pain can persist for months or even years. It's bad enough that I've had to resort to Tylenol 3. My exercise routine has been sidelined and when I do force myself to work out, the pain comes back with a vengeance.
After two weeks the pain was still horrific, so I was placed on a nerve-calming drug called Gabapentin. A week later, I'm off the codeine and slowly improving, but far from pain free.
My advice? Talk to your doctor about the vaccine.
About 20% of adults who had chicken pox are expected to get shingles, but the numbers may be growing because we don't get the immunity boost from repeated later exposure to kids with chicken pox the way our ancestors did.
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist.
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