‘Always pain’ despite years of treatment

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Crystal Vander Weit and Jasper Colt, USA TODAY

LANSING – Heather Tompkins-Herber had headaches for four or five years before a doctor took her seriously. 

The headaches, which she later learned were caused by arthritis in her neck, started in 2005. She was 26 or 27 and had young children, so doctors attributed the pain to the stress of dealing with kids. 

“Most people didn’t really look for anything to be wrong,” Tompkins-Herber said. 

It wasn’t until an emergency room doctor ordered the right scans that medical professionals diagnosed her with the condition that’s now changed her life and taken thousands of dollars to manage. 

Multiple procedures, medications

Those scans found ruptured and locked discs, and doctors sent Tompkins-Herber to a pain clinic. 

The pain wasn’t too bad at first, but it increased, and she started getting shots for the pain three times a month. 

Then, in 2012, it spread to her lower back. 

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Heather Tompkins-Herber talks about managing her arthritis Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo: Robert Killips | Lansing State Journal)

Doctors diagnosed Tompkins-Herber with spinal stenosis, a condition where the spinal canal is too narrow and pinches the spinal cord, nerve roots or both. 

Then they found bone spurs and diagnosed her with a degenerative disc disorder. 

In 2017, when shots for the pain stopped being as effective, doctors used radiofrequency ablasion to try help address the pain. During that procedure, a doctor inserts a small probe that produces an electrical current that sends radio waves into the nerve tissue. Those waves heat up small segments of the affected nerves to temporarily block pain signals. 

Find out how common arthritis and other chronic conditions are in the Lansing area. 

Tompkins-Herber said that treatment helped with the pain in her lower back, but didn’t work in her neck. 

So later that year, surgeons inserted a battery-run spinal cord stimulating device that stretches all the way from her neck to lower back. 

That “takes the edge off,” she said. 

‘There’s just always pain.’

Still, the pain never completely goes away, Tompkins-Herber said. 

“I wake up in the morning and I’m in pain. I go to bed at night and I’m in pain,” she said. “There’s just always pain.” 

It pops up in moments others wouldn’t give a second thought, like sitting on uncomfortable bleachers to watch her 18-year-old at a swim meet, she said. 

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Heather Tompkins-Herber talks about where doctors inserted a device to treat her arthritis Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo: Robert Killips | Lansing State Journal)

That’s why Tompkins-Herber is on multiple pills in addition to her shots. She takes opioids, muscle relaxers and medications to address inflammation and anxiety. She takes Excedrin when the headaches get bad. 

Tompkins-Herber said she usually takes pain medication two or three times a day. 

On bad days, she’ll take the painkillers four times a day — the maximum allowed. 

On good days, she still takes the pills at least once because she takes them before bed no matter what. 

“Everything locks up by the end of the night and there’s really no comfortable way to lay down unless you’ve take everything to kind of ease the pain,” Tompkins-Herber said.

She said the chronic pain makes opioids a necessity. She’s been taking the high-strength painkillers for 14 years. 

Recently, though, getting the medication she needs to maintain her quality of life has meant jumping through additional hoops, Tompkins-Herber said. 

For example, when she was off pain medication for two months then went to get a prescription when the pain came back, she got put back to the minimum dosage rather than the amount her medical history indicated would address her pain. 

Hit deductible by summer

All the treatment Tompkins-Herber goes through to ease the pain comes at a cost. 

Tompkins-Herber said her surgeries were completely covered by insurance, but her ongoing treatment racks up a bill. 

Each shot for pain is $1,500 to $2,000, she said. 

Tompkins-Herberalso has to get those more often because of a change in her insurance policy that means getting the shots in her neck and back separately. She now goes to get a shot every six weeks. 

Her family’s deductible is $2,500. They usually hit that by June, and “most of that is me,” she said. 

Contact reporter Megan Banta at (517) 377-1261 or mbanta@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeganBanta_1.

Read or Share this story: https://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/local/2019/11/07/arthritis-spine-pain-inflammation/3998875002/


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