Sunday, November 20, 2011

How I Saved My Back

While fishing through the comment section recently, I found this:
I recall you mentioning either in your book [or] on the blog injuring your back in the aftermath of trying to manage the injury. Have you been able to remediate that yet and if so how?
And I thought: what great timing. Because it recently occurred to me that this would make a good topic for the blog. True, it’s not knee-related, at least not directly, but I’m sure there’s lots of overlap between the knee/back pain groups.

I messed up my back, as I explain in Saving My Knees, after sitting for months with my legs raised and extended -- a position I had to assume because of knee pain. On my worst days in the Hong Kong newsroom, I’d have to get up and walk around for a while because my back felt so tight and painful. At the health club, I’d stand in the shower for 10 minutes with the water as hot as I could stand, letting the flow from the showerhead massage my backside. I wasn’t in good shape.

Today I feel fine, with no lingering issues.

What happened between then and now?

Well, first of all, I was fortunate in that the back problems weren’t too far advanced when I quit my job and dedicated myself to saving my knees. So that was good. But I knew I had to act. I didn’t want to be that guy in his 50s who’s laid up on the couch half the day after an energetic snow-shovelling session. I began reading my favorite physical therapist, Doug Kelsey, curious about what he had to say about fixing a bad back. (And I would advise all you back pain suffers to check out his writings, such as this one.)

Doug advocates strong muscles in the core, or mid-section of the body, to support the spinal column. He recommends “lock and load,” or walking around with your stomach muscles always in a state of partial tension, to engage the muscles that stabilize the spine. Personally, I couldn’t imagine having to spend the rest of my life remembering to keep my abdominals clenched. Too much work.

My compromise to take care of those muscles: a form of sit-up. Kelsey hates sit-ups, for good reason: there are plenty of ways to do a sit-up that will injure your back further. Mine are less sit-ups than isometric exercises. I lie on my back, legs folded over the couch, then sit partway up and hold that pose for three minutes -- no twisting, no violent motions. It works for me (though may not for someone with a weaker back, I suppose).

What else I do:

1. What I believe helped me the most is doing planks or bird dogs, every day (well, I take off weekends). The plank:
The bird dog:

I do a bird dog each day for 3 1/2 minutes, alternating legs, but otherwise just freezing in the pose. These are yoga positions. They will do a world of good for your back muscles, but be patient. Same as with bad knees, bad backs heal over months, not weeks.

2. Movement. Doug Kelsey once said on his blog something to the effect that (according to an old teacher) sitting does the same thing for your spine as putting a plastic bag over your head does for your breathing. Get moving! Your knees and spine will thank you. I try to get in as much walking as possible; I even take a more-distant subway train to ensure I walk a mile to work (and back) each day.

3. Weightlifting. This isn’t a must, and not a good idea early on, but I wanted a strong back that wouldn’t complain whenever I had to carry my 28-lb. 2-year-old daughter. Of course be careful. I didn’t start my back rehab with weightlifting (and honestly, I don’t do that much now anyway). I waited until my back basically felt okay, and I always, always warm up, by doing 50 repetitions of an easy weight. Plus, I don't lift too much.

3. Sweat. “Huh?” you may be thinking. What’s sweat got to do with this? But I really believe -- and I’ve probably not written enough about this -- that sweat-producing activity (when your body can tolerate it! -- e.g., don’t run four miles on bad knees just so you can break a sweat) is like getting in the fast lane for healing. This is based on Doug Kelsey’s writings and my personal experience in Hong Kong -- when I was able to walk hard enough to regularly break a sweat, I seemed to get better faster.

How long did it take my back to improve? It’s hard to say exactly (unlike with my knees, I wasn’t keeping a “Back Journal”), but I’d say a year or two. Part of what makes estimating so difficult: what’s the meaning of “improve”? After 7 or 8 months, I was certainly improved, but still had issues to work through.

Today, a full 3 1/2 years later, my back feels fine -- in fact, it’s probably stronger than before. I can ride 3 1/2 hours on a bike, bent over, with no problem. I helped a mover transport a big, heavy sleeper sofa into our apartment over the summer -- which involved moving it from the apartment of its previous owners, into an elevator, out of an elevator, into his van, etc. And when I took Cong and Joelle to Maine in September for Jo’s 2-year birthday party, at several times during the journey by train, I was loaded up, carrying luggage, like a Tibetan pack mule.

But no problem.

My spine's happy again.

1 comment:

  1. One very helpful advice to prevent back pain is to maintain a straight sitting posture especially when you are at work. Do not slouch. Keep your shoulder straight, but make sure you are comfortably sitting. If you can do it every day, you will surely not complain of having back ache at all.

    @ Fort Lauderdale Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine