At Large

Pain in the Neck

How one bad night in a strange place ruined a perfect getaway weekend.

By 8.24.06

It's called a torticollis. Something causes the muscles in one side of your neck to contract and this pulls your head either to the right or to the left -- but usually to the right -- and it's pretty much stuck there. You can move it only with great effort and lots of pain, shooting up your neck and down your spine and affected arm. Swinging that arm feels a bit like working a screwdriver into a wound.

All kinds of things contribute to it but an unfamiliar bed, new pillow, or an unfortunate sleeping position tend to be the lit match to the kerosene. People wake up -- literally -- in a whole world of hurt. Any painkiller short of morphine might dull the pain, but it won't eliminate it, or even cut it by much.

Those who suffer from "wry neck" often have a hard time stringing coherent thoughts together, but after a few episodes they learn the routine: ice, aspirin, limited movements. You can either take to bed for several days or book an appointment with somebody who's trained to go to work on the problem.

If it occurs when you're at home, then you probably have a chiropractor on speed dial. But unfamiliar conditions tend to bring it on, and so a few readers have probably felt the same proverbial pain in the neck that I did the other weekend.

I was staying over with an old friend in Victoria, British Columbia. I stirred early Saturday morning and tried to get out of bed. As soon as my head left the pillow I knew that the next few days were going to be painful and complicated.

First, there was the inevitable waiting. Before seven o' clock on a Saturday is not an ideal time to look for a chiropractor anywhere. The receptionists aren't in yet and all good people are still in bed, sleeping off their hangovers.

Second, chiropractors are well-paid professionals who tend to take the weekends off and go on holidays in August. Most of the answering machines told me that so-and-so would be back in a few weeks. Have a nice day!

Third, transportation. The excursion to Victoria had been planned as a purely pedestrian affair. In my condition, I could make it about two miles -- three tops -- which narrowed my options considerably.

By the time I called City Chiropractic, I'd crossed off all the listings in the Yellow Pages that were even remotely within that range. On my last try, I got a live voice on the other end of the line. She said that she was a massage therapist. She'd had a cancellation and could see me just after 11. Would that be OK?

Her name was Cheryl, she told me over the phone. Cheryl Grey. She was about my height, skinny with long arms, glasses, and curled hair. Under other circumstances, I might have been skeptical. Most of the chiropractors that I know are big, strong guys who could break you in half with their hands, and I'd never been to a massage therapist before.

But the suffering drove out any hint of chauvinism and I asked Miss Grey to do what she could, please. She led me to the examination room and asked a few questions. Then she worked over the affected area for the next 45 minutes, kneading and pinching and repositioning. I'd had massages before but never anything like this. A few times, her fingers dug into my back so deeply that I could feel it on the other side of my ribcage.

When she was done, I was exhausted and still in a lot of pain. But she had taken it down from nigh unbearable to merely awful. I could stand up straight and crane my neck some. I wasn't great company for the next few days, but I was able to amble about Victoria and take in a few sights.

My favorite thing was the wonderful bears. Maybe that's because they were hard to miss -- with 50 of them spread out over Vancouver Island -- and the nuance had been kneaded out of me.

The fiberglass statues were almost seven feet tall and identical except for the touches that the individual artists decided to paint on these unconventional "canvasses." Some bears were painted like hockey players, others like gentlemen, still others like something out of a child's nightmare.

Most public art projects are annoying but this one worked. Every time I rounded a corner and sighted a new bear, I just had to walk up to it and take it in and raise my arm -- my left arm, of course -- to knock on its snout with my fist, as if to ask, "Anybody home?"

Cheesy? Probably. But it helped make the whole ordeal a little more bearable.

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About the Author

Jeremy Lott is managing editor of The American Spectator, a contributor to EconStats, and the author of several books and a haiku.