My arm’s messed up.
It all started back in October, when I decided for the first time in my life to get a flu shot. Before you think I’m an anti-vaxxer, please know that I’m wholeheartedly supportive of vaccines. They are incredible, simple, life-saving blessings of science. A flu shot had just never been a part of my routine. After watching a few health-related documentaries on Netflix and seeing signs everywhere reminding me to get a flu shot, I decided to just do it. I work right next to a Walgreens, so I popped in, got stuck, and went on my way.
In retrospect, the soreness I felt over the next few days was probably worse than it should have been. Never having had a flu shot before and knowing that shots make you sore, I ignored it. It wasn’t easy; I could hardly lift my arm above parallel and had trouble with daily tasks like brushing my teeth and washing my hair. Within a few days I was pretty much back to normal though, and I thought that was the end of it.
A few days later, I was putting on lotion post-shower and realized I couldn’t reach my right arm (where the flu shot was given) over to my left shoulder. I knew I’d been able to do that before, so it struck me as odd, but I still didn’t connect the dots. It wasn’t until later that week when I tried to do some shoulder presses and experienced a shooting pain down the side of my arm that I knew something wasn’t right. I immediately stopped working out, popped a few Advil, and strapped an ice back onto my shoulder. I figured I’d tried to lift too much and had a pulled muscle.
Days went by. Then weeks. Then a month. I still couldn’t use my arm the way I wanted to. I knew I wasn’t “injured” per se; the worse of the pain had subsided as the initial soreness did, and I could use my arm in daily activities fairly well, although sometimes it “zinged” me. But I couldn’t work out. I couldn’t lift, I couldn’t kickbox. Thank goodness it was late autumn, because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to start my lawnmower. I finally broke down and went to my primary care office. By this point I was pretty sure the damage, whatever it was, was from the flu shot. My nurse practitioner prescribed me a week’s worth of prednisone. When that didn’t help, she told me to call an orthopedic doctor.
I sat in the ortho doc’s office, annoyed and frustrated that they were sending me for X-rays when clearly this wasn’t a bone issue. I remember being really upset that I’d have to pay for them, since I have high deductible insurance. I’ve been trying to build up my HSA so that if something major happens, I have my out of pocket maximum ready to go. I felt like I wasn’t being listened to; they were just sending me to X-ray because that’s what they always did.
When the doctor came in to talk to me, he essentially said that the flu shot couldn’t possibly have injured me. He proceeded to tell me that the X-ray showed a cyst in my humeral head and that was likely the cause of the pain, if not a bigger issue entirely. He told me I needed an MRI. I initially questioned him; I didn’t feel like a cyst could possibly be the cause of my issues, unless the flu shot had somehow caused one (which he said was impossible). All of my symptoms started exactly in line with when I got the flu shot. Not one to gamble with my health though, I scheduled the MRI.
By this time, it was early December. I was getting in a pretty deep funk since I couldn’t work out the way I wanted to, not to mention I was now scared to death that I had bone cancer. It was the longest week of my life, between the initial appointment and the post-MRI follow up. Luckily, the results of the MRI were the best case scenario- I didn’t have a cyst. The X-ray either had a “shadow” on it or my bone just looked that way. I was elated. I swear I felt a physical weight lift from my shoulders. I questioned the doctor again about my arm pain, but he said it was just muscle irritation and it would heal if I continued to rest it. I was so high on relief that I didn’t push the issue.
December flew by in a haze of holiday parties, a wedding, more holiday parties, post holiday naps, and waiting on a friend’s baby to arrive. January dawned, things felt fresh, and I promised myself that in 2019 that I’d figure my arm issues out and get back on track. I told myself I’d give it until April- six months from the flu shot- and go back to a different doctor and tell my tale all over again. I figured no doctor could possibly tell me that it was muscle irritation after six months.
Ultimately, I couldn’t wait that long. I was so sick of the pinching, the twinging, the pulling feeling down my arm. I was worried about every move I made. Was reaching up to that cabinet going to make it worse? What about picking up this box of paper at work? Reaching up to scratch my head? Closing the door? It was maddening.
I chose my second orthopedic doctor because of the bio on the practice’s website. He’d been an injured athlete himself. I’m not an athlete by any means, but I am pretty active, and I hoped that he would understand my plight: I’m not in terrible pain, I can do most things, but I can’t trust my arm. I can life with it, but I can’t livehow I want to with it.
I knew he was different from the minute he walked in the door. He sat down, looked at me, and said “I know you’ve probably told this story a hundred times, but can you tell me again, from the beginning?” I did, and he sat listening intently. When I was done, he said those magic words I’d been waiting to hear:
“I believe you.”
I almost cried. After months of feeling like I was making a big deal out of nothing, months of my family and friends and coworkers telling me to just give it time, after hearing another doctor tell me that my pain couldn’t possibly be the result of a flu shot, I had found someone who believed me. He explained to me that the shot likely went directly into my bursa or nicked it, causing my bursa to thicken. The thicker bursa was crowding my shoulder joint, which was causing my pain. He gave me a cortisone shot and told me to come back in six weeks to check in.
Those were long six weeks. For a few weeks, my arm felt better but perfect. For the next few weeks, I had a normal arm. I was shocked and astounded and elated. I had a setback about four weeks in, but at the end of the six weeks I’d say my arm was back to about 80%. The main pulling sensation and pain down the side of my arm was gone, but I still had some discomfort in the actual joint itself. I was prescribed meloxicam for two weeks to hopefully clean up the rest of that inflammation.
I’m a week in, and hopeful. At the end of the two weeks, I’m to start working out again, gently, and see how it goes. If it comes back, I’ll call the doc and he’ll get me into physical therapy. If that doesn’t fix it, surgery is the last resort. I’m not keen on surgery, especially since my issue isn’t debilitating. If my arm gets back to the point where I’m having trouble with daily tasks, that’s another thing.
This is such a minor problem in the grand scheme of things, but it’s the first time I’ve dealt with a health problem that has been ongoing. It’s exhausting to have to keep putting so much mental energy into this problem. I have a far greater respect for people dealing with chronic conditions now.
I’ll keep you updated on my progress.
Before I sign off, let me be clear… I am NOT advocating for skipping a flu shot. I’ll get one again next year, and the next, and the next. They are so incredibly important, not only for your protection but for the protection of those who cannot tolerate vaccines. It is one of the simplest, cheapest, easiest ways to stay healthy. I will, however, go to my doctor’s office and have the shot administered by a nurse rather than a pharmacist. As a further safeguard, I’m going to ask my nurse to give me the shot in my thigh rather than my arm. My doctor told me this issue is more common in women than in men because women typically don’t have as much “meat” on their arms; it’s more likely that the needle will hit something it isn’t supposed to hit simply because our arms tend to be smaller.
Fingers crossed I’m back to normal soon!
Overflowing with love,