Bonnie Cunningham

Finding relief after 40 years of chronic back pain

Isolation is a feeling known to many with chronic pain. Pain can dramatically force someone to make lifestyle changes to manage their daily life. Pain can create less mobility, making it harder to keep up social activities, thereby causing separation from the life they once lived.

For Bonnie Cunningham, moving to an independent living co-operative has increased her quality of life, at a time when she had felt very invisible. She has lived with chronic pain for over 40 years. Most weeks she was lucky to have one visitor a week, as her pain severely limited her from leaving her house. Her new living environment allows her to walk down the hall to visit a friend and vice versa. She participates in community events and loves going to the theater.

While Bonnie is enjoying a more social life, she says she wouldn’t be able to be as active if it were not for cannabis. At 77, she has found a treatment that allows her to enjoy her golden years.

A series of unfortunate events

Bonnie started her career in the 1960s as a nurse anesthetist. She was assisting on a procedure in the operating room when the patient had a violent reaction to a lumbar puncture. Unfortunately, Bonnie was on the receiving end of an explosive kick that sent her flying across the room. The result was a ruptured disc.

Roles soon reversed and Bonnie became the patient in the operating room for surgery to repair her spine. It was successful and she recovered quickly, but this was only the beginning of her pain journey.

Four years later, Bonnie ruptured the disc adjacent to her previous injury while working in her garden. Her surgeon suggested fusing the two discs together to prevent future problems. (A fusion essentially connects two or more vertebrae together by using rods or metal plates to stabilize the affected area.) However, a spinal fusion can limit range of motion as well as increase the rate of bone degeneration.

After the surgery, she did not bounce back as before. She felt that something was wrong but her surgeon assured her the fusion had gone as planned. With no other options available at the time, she vividly remembers a doctor telling her that by the time she was in her 70s, she would have to use a wheelchair. She was only 34, which seemed like a death sentence at the time.

Back pain became Bonnie’s constant companion in her 30s. She was unable to continue working as a nurse in the operating room. Standing on her feet all day only exacerbated her pain.

Botched surgery creates decades of unnecessary pain

In her quest to manage her back pain, Bonnie found a surgeon who discovered that the spinal fusion performed 15 years prior fused the wrong vertebrae. Using her medical background, Bonnie pored over her surgical records to find that the standard protocol was not followed.

An X-ray had not been performed during the operation to confirm the placement of needles in her spine, leading to the wrong discs being fused and leaving the weak disc to deteriorate over time and injure spinal nerves. Her spine never healed properly, causing years of constant pain.

Starting over

Bonnie’s pain had forced her to give up a career in medicine, but it gave her an opportunity to follow her true passion—teaching. She completed her bachelor’s degree at Harvard and obtained both a Master’s and a PhD in English at Brandeis University.

However, her back problems persisted. Toward the end of graduate school, she required another surgery stemming from nerve damage. This procedure fused her spine from her sacrum up to T-10, above her waist. Bonnie’s determination, routine of self-care, and use of cannabis has proven her first doctor wrong. The surgery allowed her to finish her degree and begin her career in education.

The final straw

The chronic back pain never went away completely. Fifteen years after her last surgery, Bonnie’s condition deteriorated quickly. In 2009, the pain forced her to leave her teaching career as well.

In a last-ditch effort, Bonnie found a surgeon who devised a plan to stabilize her spine using titanium rods and screws both anteriorly and posteriorly (on the inside and outside of the spine, respectively). This approach required several ribs to be removed as well as a metal plate to be placed on the sternum. Bonnie’s spine was now fused together from her pelvic bone all the way to T-6.

While her spine was now more stable, Bonnie’s quality of life did not improve. She developed pudendal neuralgia, a condition that affects the main nerve of the perineum. This makes it very difficult for her to walk, stand, or sit up straight for more than a few minutes at a time. She spends a lot of time lying down.

Hope in cannabis

Bonnie, a very social person, knew that living alone was not good for her overall health, so she moved into an independent living community. While there was no lack of activities and people around, she still felt like a hermit because she was not very mobile. She wanted more out of life.

Bonnie had been watching her son live with multiple sclerosis, eventually turning to cannabis as a treatment option. This opened her mind to trying cannabis to help her cope with her own pain.

After experimenting with different strains and consumption methods, Bonnie has found a regimen that allows her to live her fullest life.

When she wakes up in the morning, Bonnie’s pelvis and spine are stiff. She takes CBD pills to melt away the pain. Throughout the day, she takes several CBD pills to maintain a level of comfort that has increased her activity. She swims three times a week and walks the other four days. This was not possible before, no matter how much physical therapy or pain medication she used.

She has also integrated meditation and weekly massages into her self-care practice. At night, Bonnie takes a hybrid that includes both CB and THC to allow her to fall asleep, a problem that many with chronic pain develop.

“Cannabis is just plain more effective for me,” says Bonnie. “With CBD, I get no high, just pain relief. Opioids don’t do that and they seem less effective overall.”

Ignoring the stigma

Bonnie is very open about her use of cannabis to treat her chronic pain. Her doctors are aware of her use and she is an “unabashed” advocate for those who use it for medical conditions. She has even introduced cannabis to a few other residents in her independent living co-op, who now use it in one form or another to treat their own pain conditions.

Bonnie occasionally gets comments from others in her community who oppose cannabis use, although it is legal in their state. She has been scolded by others saying, “Bonnie, I thought you were a good girl!” Her retort is that she is a “good girl.” Cannabis has given her a better quality of life. She tries to educate those who are misinformed.

In the end, Bonnie is unaffected by statements made by others. What matters is that she has found a safe, effective way to treat the pain she has experienced for over 40 years.