Maybe the talisman doesn’t save us after all. Maybe something suitable just happens to be within reach at the moment we need to be saved.
When it comes to rescue, coincidence can look a lot like fate.
Several months ago, I “threw my back out.” An uber-intense workout involving a particularly brutal instrument of torture called Jacob’s Ladder twinged something in my lumbar region. Within hours, pain immobilized me.
The quotes are new. I understand now how spurious the concept of “throwing out” a section of anatomy. At the time, though, that’s how it felt — like something was wrenched from its foundation and propelled to the wrong place altogether.
First, I missed a couple of days of work. Kidney-tenderizing doses of ibuprofen and a laptop in bed got me through the rest of the week’s tasks. I returned to the office soon enough, grimacing through my metro commute as I tried to perch just so on my plastic seat. In the office, shifting every few hours between sitting and standing kept things almost manageable. When the pain intensified, I closed the door, lay flat on the floor, and spent several minutes mentally preparing myself to get up again. Through all this, frightening quantities of Advil barely dulled the blades of pain.
Those blades whittled my world down to purely mandatory routines. Every day, new limitations developed. “Throwing out” my back meant throwing out many of my regular activities:
- That cool lateral elliptical machine
- Any gym machine, really
- Most abdominal exercises except for the ones you can do while totally flat
- Playing outside with my son
- Playing inside with my son at anything other than board games (or as he calls them, “bored games.”)
- Writing, because it hurt to sit, it hurt to stand, and it’s super hard to type while lying down.
- Social events that required driving or riding the metro
Removing these seemingly injurious behaviors from my life wasn’t enough. Everyday tasks demanded a new level of precision. Vacuuming, hauling groceries, even just sitting at the table in a restaurant. . . The meticulous, almost ritualistic assessment of motion is one sure way to recognize members of the tribe of back pain sufferers — a tribe of which I’d become a grudging member. We mark ourselves with concentrated caution. We map out the movement in our minds, place a pin near all the potential explosions of pain, then pick our way through the execution with the focus of someone crossing the street after an ice storm.
For months, the little exercise I could do was limited to the stationary bike. All endorphins had to be generated on that single machine, and near daily riding increased my endurance beyond anything I’d imagined possible. One day I spontaneously took an actual road-bike ride that covered 33 miles.
This small victory didn’t last. Soon enough, climbing onto the saddle triggered electrical currents of pain down my right leg.
At this point, months had passed since the initial injury. While trying to broadcast confidence, behind my game face, I fretted. Is this what it means to get old? Decades of dance and physical activity have busted my ankles, sprained both wrists, shredded my meniscus, and torn so many muscles that I’ve lost count. For most of my life, I’ve been able to rest a few days and come back from a hurt. Not this time.
Is this the turning point? Will I have to limp through the next half century as a shambling bag of scar tissue who winces at every jolt?
A copy of Treat Your Own Back by Robin McKenzie has been sitting on my shelf gathering dust since early spring. When a friend sent it to me after the injury, I skimmed the pages and set it aside. It looked like old news. I’d taken yoga. And pilates. I’d dabbled in Feldenkrais and Body-Mind Centering. I’d run and boxed and danced and biked and hiked mountains and caves and canyons. Hell, I know how to stretch, I don’t need a book to tell me.
Except the pain.
So much pain.
And none of those mountaintops is anywhere within reach now.
Now, only what’s here in front of me.
At the bookcase, I push through the resistance bubbling up. I try to ignore the inner eye-roll which is my reflex response to any one-size-fits-all wellness intervention, whether it’s the Cult of the Probiotic, or Zen and the Art of Downward Dog.
I dust off McKenzie. After reading the slim book, I return to the beginning and read the whole thing again.
Nothing left to lose, I start doing the exercises.
Getting onto the floor hurts. Getting up after hurts. The exercises? They don’t really hurt, though the anxiety that they will hurt almost paralyzes me.
The book says to do these little stretches several times a day for a few days. They feel silly and far too small for the agony I’m experiencing. Of course, accompanying this new routine is the worrying possibility that these extreme extensions might make things worse. For all I know, this McKenzie dude could be the Edgar Cayce of back pain. Another quack with a cult following and a potion to sell.
Then another gift arrives from the same friend — the friend who seems to know exactly what rescue ring to throw, and exactly how far. This Amazon score is Crooked: Outwitting the Back Pain Industry and Getting on the Road to Recovery by Cathryn Jakobson Ramin. It’s a monster of a book whose first half focuses on the grim realities of the industry: spine surgeons, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers, and the abysmal oversight of all three. The more encouraging second half explores treatments with a track record of success.
While all the effective approaches have their own organizing principles, they share a few common elements: steady, ongoing exercise; lifestyle changes that incorporate fitness and back health; moving through pain while maintaining regular activities; and commitment to daily practice.
I gobble up Ramin’s work in record time. I’m starting to sense a transformation in my attitude. Starting to notice that this body and mind may actually work in tandem towards recovery.
I add a few new small exercises to my routine. Now a front plank and Dr. Stuart McGill’s “Big Three” join the back extensions. This whole cycle takes less than five minutes. I go through it once when I first get up in the morning, once sometime mid-day (usually in my office on the floor), and once again right before bed.
It’s been three weeks since all this started.
Since I opened the first book and the second arrived, three weeks.
A few simple exercises a few times a day — far less time than I waste on Facebook, really — have erased four months of pain.
Here is what I can do now:
- Run several miles a day
- Take on any elliptical machine in the gym at any resistance level
- Ride any bike
- Hike any trail
- Power through all the weights, all the abdominal exercises, all the everything
- Zumba, including a new high-impact advanced class with a instructor who runs on rocket fuel
- Stand pain-free for hours on a boat or at a concert
- Leap and cavort (yes, cavort) with my son in the waves at Virginia Beach
- Climb stuff at the park, sit on the floor and play legos, haul the groceries, wrangle the dog, ride the metro, drive for hours
- Everything. I can do everything.
The “thrown out” actions have returned to my life. They’ve brought with them other activities — activities I have avoided for years because of other accumulated aches and pains — and said, “Hey, remember this old friend? She’s moving back in.”
Things like bouncing.
In the past, when Bug talked me into taking him to trampoline parks, I never jumped. It was the knee surgery or the back or the neck. It was also the fear. I’d pay his entrance fee, park myself in a corner, and read until he was ready to head home.
During last week’s vacation, on an afternoon following a 3-mile sunrise run and a 4-1/2 mile morning hike through First Landing, we wound up at a trampoline park. I paid for us both. I put on the socks. I stepped into the arena.
For the next hour, I bounced.
Together we raced over the spring-loaded floors, ricocheted from walls, spun off a trapeze, and leapt into foam pits. On the same day as both a run and a hike, I jumped as if my muscles were made of silly string and skeleton from memory foam. My son’s flushed face beamed every time I flew up onto a platform next to him. We breathed hard together for a moment before he flung himself off again hollering, “Follow me!”
I bounced and bounced.
I bounced right back.
Was it the books that saved me? The friend that sent them?
The motivation to be free of it?
Maybe it was the willingness to try something small and silly and certain to fail.
Or maybe just the right alignment of all of the above.
In any event, the rescue is complete. I’m back in my native land, no longer bound to the tribe of sufferers. No longer mapping my every move. Here, I know the steps by heart.
As for the happily ever after, I understand it will involve about 10 minutes a day for the rest of my life.
Small price for everything, don’t you think?