With all the horrors in the world, the assassinations, the wars, the murders, the oppression, and the resulting poverty and suffering, it’s hard to focus on the merely personal. But I took notice when I saw that the New York Times had an important article about the bane of so many of us: agonizing back pain, “Study Questions Need to Operate on Disk Injuries.” If you suffer from back pain like I have, you’ll pay attention. And if you think that some day you might, you’ll also pay attention. (And believe me, you might…)
When it hit me I thought that I would rather be dead. I had suffered lots of unpleasant tingling from the waist down for some months, much like when an arm or a leg “goes to sleep.” Then when I was doing some pullups I felt a jab like someone had stabbed me in the spine with an ice pick….that was hooked up to the battery of a Mack Truck. The pain got worse and worse (and worse) until I could barely drag myself to the front door in less than 15 minutes. I had no idea anything could hurt that much without involving walls splattered with blood and bone chips. I lost control of my left leg, which atrophied due to the nerve damage, and the phantom pains were, unfortunately, describable: it felt alternately like my leg was being boiled, smashed with sledge hammers, and eaten by millions of ants. I knew that that wasn’t in fact happening, but it still wasn’t nice. After a quick trip to an MRI clinic (thank God for for-profit medicine, as I was able to arrange one in an hour, not months and months) I certainly considered surgery, but the head of spinal treatments at Georgetown University cautioned me against it. As he said, it has risks and his experience over two decades had shown that most people who follow a regimen of treatment recover without surgery. So, I visited a few pain clinics for specialized treatment and then rehabilitation therapy, followed by intensive (and still maintained) physical stretching and exercise. It worked and my pain is generally under control. (The experience led me to write a short essay on “For-Profit Medicine and the Compassion Motive.”)
If you want to avoid back pain, get and read Bob Anderson’s simple and straightforward book, Stretching. It’ll help you to avoid the agony I underwent. (That’s the first hint. The seond is that you shouldn’t walk around with forty or fifty pounds of books hanging from one shoulder, as it bends the spine in an unhealthy way and causes a disk to push out on the other side). If you do experience a back injury or back pain, it’ll help you to recover.
Oh, and if you have some extra scratch to invest in pain avoidance, try the Freedom Chair, on one of which I’m sitting right now: