Wednesday, October 03, 2007


In Which I am Shocked...SHOCKED...

Long-time readers may well remember what a bore I am when my back is bothering me, so I guess it's time to be boring again.

Truth to tell, I'm in the middle of what has proven to be a fairly long phase of wince-worthy to mad-bastard back pain, and traveling around the country, hauling boxes out of cramped storage areas and carrying infants around for hours at a time hasn't helped it one bit.

I like to be able to say "I've tried everything," but until recently, I couldn't quite. But it must be said I have tried rather a lot in my past several years of back-pain, including physical therapy, smart-back school (whatever that was), massage, acupressure, acupuncture, more physical therapy, epidural steroid injections, surgery, still more physical therapy, and, of course, a wide and varied sampling of every form of opiate-based painkiller available to mankind, with the exception, perhaps, of opium itself.

And still I couldn't say I tried everything because I hadn't yet worn one of these babies:


Care to guess what it is? Numerous people in my life have made a wide range of creative stabs: Thomas wondered if I was becoming "bionic"; several neighbors thought it was a cell phone; at least one coworker misidentified it as a device used to measure blood sugar levels; another correctly identified it as a device that controlled electrical impulses but thought it was some kind of gadget to stop incontinence.

In fact, it is a portable TENS unit, TENS standing for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, which is, of course, what the device provides.

The principle upon which it operates is a simple one: given that the sensation of pain is little more than an electrical impulse sent along a nerve pathway, a TENS unit sends it owns wave of electrical impulses through a specific spot on the body, essentially jamming the pain signal. In reality, when functioning correctly, what the device does is generate an artificial and ongoing sensation of pins-and-needles which, while not exactly painful, does take some getting used to.

In previous courses of physical therapy, I'd had TENS applied to my back after training sessions. But those were big, bedside models. I'd never worn a personal TENS unit. Thus it was that, roughly four Tuesdays ago, I found myself spending a half-hour with the helpful sales rep of the EMPI Company, the maker of the unit I was going to wear on a trial basis for the next month of so. The rep showed me how the device worked, and here I have to say, it's not as effortless as it might seem at first glance.

For starters, to effectively target your pain, you have to apply no less than four electrodes--each of which affixes to your skin by means of the world's coldest sticky gel (try slapping those on top of your ass first thing in the morning). Then you have to play around with the settings to find a rhythm of electrical current that best blocks your pain.

At this point, the sales rep made the wise suggestion that I ramp the setting on the TENS unit to the very edge of my pain threshold, just to see what I could comfortably stand. So I slowly adjusted the control button from setting 1 to 2 to 4 to 5 to 7 and so on. At about 11.5, I could feel my lower back and glutes begin locking up involuntarily as the current coursed through my lower body. Not pleasant. So I set the unit back down several notches and eventually found that a setting of 4.5 comfortably blocked out my pain.

I went to work with the unit the next day and it was almost like a miracle. I sometimes have to sit all day, which I don't have to tell you is hell on the back. But with the TENS unit thrumming quietly through my low back and hips, I essentially felt nothing, like my ass was asleep, really. It was wonderful.

Until I went to the meeting.

I think that in just about any other circumstance, I would have been fine. But that day, events conspired to create one of those perfect-storm moments without which my life would just not be complete.

For starters, I'd already been wearing the unit for most of the day--since about 7 AM, in fact. It was 3:30 when the meeting was called. I usually remove the electrodes around that time--I find that the gelled sides of the electrodes are pretty well dried out by then and don't stick so well to my skin--but removing the electrodes means untucking my shirt and fishing around in the back of my pants in a manner you really don't want to exhibit in front of your coworkers, especially at this meeting, which was filled with high-level executives, as well as some peon mid-level managers like me.

For another thing, I was wearing a pair of boxer shorts bought during a brief, freak episode of weight gain, when I dressed out at around 177 pounds. These days I'm back down to my normal weight of about 160, so the shorts, though comfortable, were exceedingly baggy. The trousers I was wearing were a bit baggy, too.

So when I stood up to go into the meeting, see, I didn't realize that one of the electrodes had fallen off the top of my hip and was now resting in the seat of those baggy shorts. Hey, my ass was asleep--how would I have known?

And the hell of it was, I still didn't feel a thing for some minutes into the meeting. So I didn't quite realize that when I sat back down in that conference room, that wayward electrode was now located approximately one millimeter from the back of my scrotum.

Then I turned to grab a piece of paper from a colleague sitting next to me. That's when the buttons on the front of the TENS unit rubbed against the armrest of the seat in just the right combination needed to disable the button lock on the unit.

So when I brushed against that armrest the next time, the TENS unit was jogged suddenly from its sedate 4.5-level setting.

To level 24.

Now, I'd like to switch your perspective for a moment.

Imagine that you are a fairly highly placed executive for a large publishing company, and you're about three minutes into a fairly intense brainstorming meeting packed with managers and bright people from all over the company. Sitting across from you is a man you know from your many visits to and meetings with staff at the Really Big Magazine. You can never quite remember his name, but you know him to be an animated and jocular fellow, usually full of witty things to say, and a good kind of personality to have in a brainstorming meeting. Or so you thought.

You've just handed out an agenda and are making a few opening remarks when all of a sudden this man snaps to in his chair. His eyes are wide and his mouth is opening, but no sound is coming out. His hands twist into two trembling fists and then his whole body begins to shake violently. Before you can even form a thought to utter the words to ask what the hell is wrong, this man suddenly and, it appears, quite involuntarily, jerks half out of his seat and does an impromptu impression of Elvis Presley dancing, slamming the side of the table three times--hard--with his pelvis--BAMBAMBAM--slopping drinks and scattering papers. He appears to be in the throes of an epileptic fit, or some darkly unnatural sexual spasm. And now he is making sounds--at first they are strange, strangled "Nuck! Nuck! Egggarrrhhhhh!" noises, but they quickly shift to a kind of hyped-up, ululating, effeminate yipping. Now he's swinging his arms wildly, smacking at his right hip, where he appears to be trying to beat away a small square object (is it a cell phone? A blood-sugar device? An electronic bladder control unit?). Finally, he snags two black wires and yanks them free, pulling a surprising amount of slack and most of his shirt up along with them. For a brief but grotesque moment, he gives everyone a good look at his hideous expanse of hairy, middle-age belly flab. Ladies--and not a few men--squawk and avert their eyes. Then he goes still, panting, his hair practically standing up on end. He stops and looks sheepishly around.

The room is dead quiet.

The man knows better than to hold a press conference. He mutters an abashed "sorry" and dashes from the room.

But one thing's for sure: You just remembered his name, and now you'll never forget it, not for as long as you live.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I happened to read this entry at work. (I work for a similarly large sort of employer). I can picture the room, the executives and the co-workers. That was really well told. I am sorry to admit that I am almost crying for laughing so hard. Sorry, man.
Oh, my, MM, that is hilarious. Thanks for helping wake me up and put me in a good mood this morning.

I'm sure it was rather less than hilarious for you at the time. Hope your back feels better soon and you don't have any more mechanical issues with your "shock and awe" machine.
OMG I just wet myself I have not laughed so hard, the girl in the next cube could hear me trying to stifle the laughter but she actually thought I was having a seizure.
Thanks for sharing this embarassing moment! I have tears rolling down my face. You have such a gift in telling stories, that I could picture being in the room right along with you.
OK - that was hilarious.

I'd be lying if I said I never laugh at the misfortune of others... but it's probably true that I've never actually laughed *this hard* at the horrible misfortune of any other. MM, I am so sorry for your... pain! And embarrassment! But if there's one person who can bounce back from that situation - even with the execs - it's without a doubt you.

At least your pants didn't fall down from the slack. That's what I was expecting.

Thank goodness my office mate is on an errand - now I can reread this and laugh till I cry.
I'm just so, so sorry. While I've never worn one, I've helped another person with her TENS, and I know how bad the pain has to be before you get there.
And I know that this story is absurdly funny, but what you described just sounds so painful that I can't even laugh. That's not true, I did chuckle at the post title after rereading it.
i'm sorry that you are in such pain as to have to endure a device like this, but OMG, i am laughing HYSTERICALLY. *whew!* thanks, i needed that. sorry it was at your expense!
My husband made me stop reading as soon as I got to the part in which you mentioned the threshold of 24.

And he now refuses to uncross his legs.
Priceless, MM, just priceless! *laughs like a MAD woman while wiping tears from face*

As soon as I hit the words "Level 24" I couldn't stop saying "Oh my god" until I finished reading the post.

Oh my god.

You and we, your readers, are lucky you were blessed with such a fabulous sense of humor that you were able to write about this so vividly. Damn.

That description at the end had me dying laughing. I'm lucky I have my own office...
My wife and I are laughing so hard we're crying. Hope the lads are recovering -- this seems to be their year for medical experimentation, what with the earlier vasectomy and all. Just think, you could have avoided the vasectomy -- just apply the TENS unit at 24, problem solved!

I'm a bio-medical equipment technician, and I've worked on those units many, many times. The best way to test them is to apply them and ramp them up. It becomes a test for the whole shop -- who can stand the highest setting.

We never applied them to our packages, though. Very creative.
Gawddang, man. Give the world a book and get the weight of the world off your back. The universe wants you to tell YOUR stories so much it's trying to immobilize you so you'll finally give in. How about a collection of stories from your blog?

Aw well. That was a good story. I chuckled a little, but I was way more concerned with your pain and embarrassment. Feel better, MM! And please let us know when you do. It just seems like you can't win lately.
When will I remember not to drink my morning coffee when I'm reading your posts. Aaargh!
Tears in my eyes. Only you... Only you... You must have been pretty evil in a past life.
oh my gawd. i'm sorry at laughing at your pain, really i am... but that was about the funniest thing i've read in quite a while.

i hope that your fellow employees are understanding and that one day you can look them in the eyes again. and i hope that your back pain is better soon.

That was hysterical. I had a personal TENS unit so I really can relate in a "thank God that never happened to me" kind of way.
"that wayward electrode was now located approximately one millimeter from the back of my scrotum."

As soon as I hit that line, I had to walk away from my monitor, I was laughing so hard. I knew something dignity crushing was coming.

In my younger days, I thought that one could die from embarrassment (or at least wish you could). The wisdom of my years has taught me that I am not the only being afflicted with mortifying moments.

You, Mr. MM, have given me a most precious gift.

No matter how bad my Red Faced moments have been, yours have been worse.

On more than one flush faced moment, I have thought: "At least this isn't as bad as when MM.............
I too, was a victim of reading this at work, although after being caught laughing my ass off at this post, my boss wandered by to check on me. Fortunately I got the window closed in time and made up a story about a funny customer...

awesome story MM - and hope you're feeling better now!
I laughed so hard out loud (though did feel a certain amount of pity for your situation...) that my housemates came running to see what all the ado was about. They, in turn, laughed with as equal enthusiasm as I. Sorry about your gooch, man. That was not a good prize...
MM, whatever you say about yourself, one thing you are not is boring. No, that's not a word I'd ever apply to your tales of woe. Oh dear lord, I can't stop giggling ... what did HLS have to say when you told her this story? Was she even able to speak through the snorts of laughter?
Painful for you - hilarious for us. I literally spit out some coffee when I got to the part where you electrocuted your jewels.
I just snorted LOUDLY again while laughing and it's the 3rd time I've read this. Oy. What I wouldn't have given to be a fly on the wall after you left the room...
Oh wow, I;m sorry i had to laugh at your pain :(
I know it was not even remotely funny. I know I could never wear one of those things at any setting

and yet I have to mention that this story needs a tea spitting alert at the top! LOL
Back pain sucks. That being said, holy crap! I guess you found a way to make the meeting a bit less boring. Hope there was no permanent damage, and no additional damage inflicted upon your back by your spasmodic hamster dance. At least until the perfect storm, the device seemed to work. Find the positive, amigo.
I blame you, yes, you sir, for the laughing that just turned into a coughing fit that has just turned my car-accident-afflicted back into a wall of pain.

But it was worth it. :)

God, that was freaking funny!
As soon as I hit the same line Sharfa wrote about~ I had to leave and get myself together. Thanks for the morning laugh~ which was much needed and appreicated.

Sorry about your distress but thinking about it~ it could have been so much worse~ ;)
I'm crying even harder now!!! (only for a vastly different reason!) Hahahaha!

Oh you poor, poor baby!!!
OMG. Read this in public and I have a very loud laugh. Tried not to meet anyone's eye.

Thanks for sharing your pain. I firmly believe that a terrible experience is made better if you get a good, funny story out of it.
If any television writers are reading, I hope the clouds part and they at last see the physical-comedy potential of the TENS unit.

I'm a TENS fan myself, though the personal model I've used had the benefit of self-adhesive pads; that gel and tape thing just doesn't work outside the PT room.
OMG--I am soooo sorry.
And I laughed so hard.

As a PT who has taught people how to use TENS units, I knew what was coming. I am wondering how you managed to have BOTH the major problems with TENS--loose electrode, and bumped intensity dial--happen at the same time.

Like the other writer said, you poor, poor boy!
You are like a cosmic nexus for "pefect storm' situations aren't you, darlin'?
I am so sorry to laugh so hard at your misfortune but oh my what a good giggle it was.
Thank you.
Tears are rolling down my cheeks! hahaha!! Poor you!

I read this and immediately forwarded it to my mother, who makes extensive use of a TENS unit.

She called me after reading it to let me know that she had used all her laughs (quiet and dignified, chortle, full on belly laugh, and the one that creates a gigglesnort) while reading your trials.

The best part is that she works as a physical therapist, and they make extensive use of TENS units. So she's going to take it in to work so everyone in the office can read about the possible pitfalls of TENS unit use.

So congratulations! You've made it! You're now an Official Cautionary Tale!

Just popped over from Five Star Friday. Man, what a story. I laughed so hard, I scared the cat.
Oh boy. I've used a personal TENS unit and, despite not having scrotum myself, I think I can imagine your pain! No, sorry, I'm imagining it in my back. I'm sure I have no idea how bad it really was for you! Great story, well told!
Holy crap, I got your link from 5 Star Friday and I am crying I am laughing so hard.

Maybe I'll try shocking my nuts next time I get bored in a meeting and feel like spicing things up a bit.
Ah yes. You remembered his name and he will definitely remember YOURS.
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