Dealing with back and body pain is never easy — but it’s especially hard when you shoulder it alone. Studies show people assess the level of their own pain… and cope better with it when they are connected to others instead of feeling isolated to deal with it on their own.
That’s something that Crystal Smith and Katie Critchelow know well. The two women from Kentucky have been friends for 18 years and recently got closer than ever while helping each other navigate life-changing back pain.
Here’s their story — and 3 tips on how to connect with others when you’re in pain.
Crystal and Katie have been friends in their small town in Kentucky for 18 years. Crystal’s husband, a primary care doctor, introduced them after he met Katie, the co-owner of a local physical therapy practice — Legacy Physical Therapy, that he was referring a lot of patients too. “We had worked together for a year when he said to me — you’ve got to meet my wife. You all are going to be great friends. And the rest is history,” Katie explains.
Their friendship was defined by lots of fun things — like shopping, facials, fundraising and community activities — until back pain started seeping into their lives. It happened to Crystal first. She woke up with neck pain one morning and within weeks, had a hard time feeling her arm and had nerve loss. She eventually found her way to me while looking for a second opinion. Another doctor recommended a spinal fusion and she didn’t feel it was right for her. I didn’t either. We did an artificial disc replacement in 2017 instead and that addressed her issues.
Five years later, Katie started experiencing back pain and oddly, it was in the exact same part of the spine as her friend — C5 and C6. Crystal referred her to me and in 2022 I performed an artificial disc replacement on her as well.
Today both women are pain-free and living active lives again. Here are 3 ways they say leaning on friends helped them get back to doing what they love.
Crystal is an upbeat and positive person by nature but as her pain worsened, she started to feel differently. “”I became very grouchy because I’m a big sleeper. I like my sleep and I was in so much pain, I really wasn’t sleeping well,” Crystal explains. She says Katie was an important resource to her, encouraging her to reach out anytime she was in pain to talk through it or come visit her at her physical therapy practice for ice, heat and other efforts to minimize pain.
Then when Katie started experiencing pain, she leaned on Crystal a lot — being honest about how debilitating it was and how much she was struggling just to get through the day. “I would call Crystal all the time,” Katie says. “I have no idea how she lived with her pain for so long. She was such a good support system to me and helped me reach out and get help quickly so I didn’t prolong the pain when it happened to me.”
“We like to share things but this is a little more unusual,” Crystal says with a laugh. “Katie was there for me every step of the way. She would meet with me during her lunch to help in any way she could because she could see how much I hurt and how desperate I felt. Obviously you’re dealing with physical pain but there’s so much emotional baggage that comes with chronic pain too— lack of sleep, mood, and you’re trying to fill all of your other roles and responsibilities at the same time. Having a friend who can help lift you up during that time is critical.”
Crystal and Katie are both really physically active and they both had great concerns about a spinal fusion, worried it would limit their motion and mobility. “We’re not saying that a fusion is a terrible thing to do, but it wasn’t right for me and it definitely wasn’t right for Crystal,” Katie explains.
So when local doctors recommended that procedure — they went searching for other options. They had to keep widening their search — eventually extending it 10 hours from their hometown to our practice — the Virginia Spine Institute in Reston, VA. They credit each other with helping search for options and then figuring out how to get there.
“Crystal and her husband came to my house to fill out paperwork and speed up the process,” Katie said. She also helped me see that a 10 hour drive was nothing if it got me to the right doctor who could help,” Katie adds. “And she was right.”
Pain can be overwhelming and hard to talk about sometimes. You don’t want to feel like you’re complaining all the time. It’s also scary. After a back procedure, even when you start to feel better, sometimes you need a friend to help you get back to doing the things you love without worrying you will hurt yourself again.
“It’s scary when it happens to you but I do think watching me go through it first was reassuring,” Crystal says. “She helped me work my way back to yoga, gardening and being active and then when it was her turn, I was able to promise her that it wasn’t forever and she would be better on the other side. This whole experience has definitely been easier because we’ve done it together.”
Dr. Colin Haines is a board certified spine surgeon and the Director of Research at Virginia Spine Institute. Dr. Haines performed the world’s first combined endoscopic and robot-guided spine surgery. His patient success has earned him a national feature on The Today Show and WebMD, and Top Doctor recognition in consecutive years. Learn more about Dr. Haines.