One Day at the Gym Leads to Years of Pain and Questions
Every other week, Dianna Burt drives an hour and a half across state lines to Semmes Murphey Clinic, a center that specializes in spine and neurological treatments. While Dianna says the trek from Grenada, Mississippi, to Memphis, Tennessee, is made a bit more purposeful by having family on the way, she makes that drive because she has to.
Semmes is the only place within a reasonable distance that can effectively treat her myofascial pain syndrome. The treatment: myofascial release, a massage therapy that targets trigger point muscles in the body. Without this treatment, the symptoms of myofascial pain syndrome “can be intensified by almost any kind of activity such as exercise, cleaning, and even walking,” says Dianna. Chronic myofascial pain is Dianna’s most recent condition; she was diagnosed this year. At age 31, she also lives with costochondritis and sacroiliitis.
Often, the moments that serve as the catalyst for everlasting pain in our lives are big and loud. Catastrophic. Car crashes. Major surgeries. Rarely do we envision chronic pain as stemming from something as banal as a sit-up.
When Dianna was 24, she was going to the gym multiple times each week to gain muscle and core strength. During a core strength class, the instructor had Dianna place a simple five-pound weight on her chest while she did sit-ups. That day, she strained her back muscles. No big deal, she thought. But the next morning, she could barely move. Weird, she mused, but still, not terribly alarming. But that was just the start.
“It felt like something was stabbing my lungs every time I took a breath,” Dianna shares. “My mom ended up driving me to the emergency room, because I could not breathe and could hardly move without excruciating pain. The doctor at the ER did not see the need to do any tests on my heart due to my young age and said that I had most likely ‘pulled a muscle’ in the workout class. He sent me home with painkillers and instructions to take it easy for six weeks. However, six weeks turned into years.”
SEEKING OUT ANSWERS
For two years, Dianna took every step with care, knowing that the wrong move could cause the sharp pain to return, forcing her to rest until it eased. Two years after her initial symptoms, when she was a newlywed unpacking boxes in their home, the stabbing pain returned—but this time it did not go away.
She did not want to go to the ER again to be told “it’s a pulled muscle” and to “take it easy.” Instead, an osteopath finally gave her a diagnosis: costochondritis, which is inflammation of the cartilage connecting the ribs to the breastbone. Dianna experienced the ironic mix of dread and relief of having a name for her pain, but this did not equate to physical relief. A carousel of referrals to different specialists commenced, most leading to prescriptions for muscle relaxers she did not want because they made her drowsy. After an ineffective stint with a physical therapist, Dianna felt like she’d reached a dead end.
“The physical therapist told me she couldn’t help me anymore—she said it in the nicest way she could, but I really wish instead of saying, ‘Well, I can’t figure it out, so I guess no one can,’ I wish she had referred me to someone who might know a little more,” Dianna says. “Even though they don’t have to live with it anymore, I still have to live with it. I still gotta figure it out.”
Frustrated by the high cost, emotionally and financially, of asking medical professionals for answers and receiving none, Dianna tried to see what she could find out on her own.
“By 2019, I got serious about doing my own research about my pain,” she shares. “I had pretty much decided that I was finished going to the doctor for my pain. Over the following years, I purchased devices to help me do back adjustments at home. I started doing yoga and daily stretches. I invested in trying different muscle rubs and pain creams. I started my collection of heating pads and ice packs. You name it, I probably tried it.”
These were frustrating, weary years of navigating pain without any sort of compass. Activity modification became key as Dianna learned to manage her pain on her own. If she wanted to do something fun, she had to plan recovery days to deal with the inevitable pain flare that followed.
“Eventually I got to where I could mostly manage my pain, mostly by avoiding certain movements or activities,” she shares. “I had reluctantly accepted that this was just how I had to live.”
ADDITIONAL CHALLENGES, NEW DIAGNOSES
At the end of 2021, another kind of pain started out of nowhere in her leg and lower back, soon escalating until her entire left leg was experiencing severe muscle cramps—“a literal pain in the butt,” she describes.
When she was once again referred to a physical therapist for this latest pain, she recalled her experiences from the previous year and was not hopeful anyone would miraculously know what was wrong with her this time.
But they did.
This physical therapist diagnosed her leg pain as sacroiliitis, inflammation of the sacroiliac joints at the connection of the spine and pelvis. Her muscle pains—mainly in her mid- and lower back and, most recently, her neck—were also determined to be a symptom of myofascial pain syndrome, in which pressure in the muscles can cause pain in other parts of the body. Dianna and her doctors are still trying to determine if this pain also stems from her injury.
“Thank goodness I accepted the referral to this knowledgeable physical therapist,” Dianna says. “It took a few months, but I can walk without pain again. I can do yoga again. I still have to be careful and pace myself, but I am so much better in that respect.”
She still experiences pain in her rib cage and upper back and sometimes has flare-ups. But a combination of physical therapy, dry needling, myofascial release, pelvic-stabilizing exercises, ultrasound therapy, yoga, medications, heat, and ice help manage her pain.
Dianna adds that her faith has been key in learning to accept her pain conditions.
“I will say I don’t think God did this to me, gave me these conditions,” she says. “I don’t think he wanted me to be in pain. I don’t think he wants anyone to be in pain. But he does take situations we go through in our lives, and he can always find ways to use them for good. I see God’s hand in every step of my life.”
LEARNING TO MOVE FORWARD
Naturally, Dianna lives in trepidation that a wrong move, a weird exercise, will bring about a new permanent pain. But she has much to live for. Her work as an elementary school music teacher provides her the necessary distraction to her pain. “Second and third graders are young enough where it’s still OK to like your teacher, but they’re old enough to help, so they’re very helpful to me by moving chairs and instruments around and setting up the stage for rehearsals and performances,” she says.
Same with her Jack Russell terrier Bailey and her Golden Retriever Banjo, who aren’t willing to give her a moment to dwell in her misfortune, but instead beckon for her love and attention—a good payoff. Dianna and her husband of five years, Buddy Burt, spend their weekends as wedding videographers, and it is through this—enveloping herself in love and positivity—that she balances the unknowns of life with chronic pain.
“It took me seven years to accept that I have a chronic pain condition,” she says. “For the longest time, I tried to tell myself that I just wasn’t working hard enough and it was my fault that I was not getting better. But now, I’ve accepted that my body has limitations. And if I work with those limitations rather than fight against my body, I can live a more fulfilling life.”