My back is getting younger

I want to shout this from the rooftops.

I am writing this while sitting at my desk, something I haven’t been able to do in the past 14 months.

My daily life until recently involved an hour-long routine of stretching, lying on my back, hanging upside down on an inversion table, taking a bunch of pills, alternating hot and cold compresses, and swearing under my breath.

Last month I took a van service to the airport for an international flight. The van driver noticed the back cushion I brought as well as how much I shifted in the seat to try to get comfortable. I told him I had sciatica and I hoped it would get better soon. “In my experience,” he said, “the way you feel right now is the best you are going to feel for the rest of your life.” That hurt his tip.

But it inspired in me a fresh batch of research into back pain. I’d already read a dozen-plus books on the subject, but I checked Amazon’s current bestsellers in the chronic pain category and checked Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection by Dr. John Sarno out from the library. I started reading it on New Year’s Eve and by January 6 I had less pain than I’ve had in over a year.

To emphasize how big a deal this is, let me quickly review what I’ve experienced so far.

I’m not sure why the pain started in the first place. It was getting bad in December 2015, so I thought back and blamed it on Turkey Bowl football Thanksgiving morning (my team won but my muscles ached for days) and then helping a neighbor move a week later. I was lifting a big couch at the end of the move and felt a bolt of pain in my back. Sciatic pain started up a couple of weeks later.

I’d experienced sciatica a couple of years earlier but it wasn’t too bad and it went away after some physical therapy that included leg exercises and stretching. This time around it got worse and worse. For a few weeks I had a cane next to my bed to help me get up in the morning. The pain was constant and consumed my thoughts.

I started with a family doctor who specialized in sports medicine. He gave me an oral steroid that completely relieved the pain. . . for one day.

He referred me to a physical therapist. Physical therapy left me in so much pain I could barely walk back to the car in the parking lot. I quit after 5 or 6 visits.

I got x-rays. Inconclusive.

I was referred to another specialist who prescribed an MRI.

I got an MRI. Herniated disc, spinal stenosis.

He referred me to a back surgeon.

The back surgeon referred me to a pain specialist, a physiatrist, who gave me a steroid injection.

This sounds fast as I write it out, but each step in this process took at least two weeks. We’re into March 2016 now and I’m sleeping on and off all day, exhausted from the constant pain. I’ve tried TENS therapy, As-Seen-On-TV Magic Back lumbar stretcher, acupressure mat, ice packs, hot packs, yoga, stretches, ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen, muscle relaxants, turmeric, hydrocodone, Jamaica dogwood extract, meditation, and crying.

Almost every day some new back gimmick was arriving from Amazon.

I would give up for a few weeks and then try something new. A new book, a new doctor. Two chiropractors, acupuncture, so many YouTube videos and forums on back pain, an inversion table, ointments, creams, deep-tissue massage, the Miracle Ball Method, McKenzie exercises, Egoscue exercises, the exercises of some random dude on YouTube. I investigated a clinic that offered laser therapy and the DRX9000 spinal decompression system but balked at the price ($10K) and the 20+ required sessions in a machine that claims to stretch my spine (and whose effectiveness is much disputed).

I switched to a standing desk at work. I avoided sitting down, as much as possible. While my family sat on the couch to watch tv, I knelt on the floor and propped my arms up on a stool. Piggyback rides and wrestling matches with the kids were a distant memory. I couldn’t pick up my 3-year-old and I imagined my kids describing their dad to their kids as the guy who had a bad back and couldn’t do much. I bought all slip-on shoes because I couldn’t bend over to tie anything.

The steroid injection is the one thing that actually worked, for a while. It cut the pain down to a manageable level from March until about October when I got a second one (which either didn’t work or took several weeks to kick in). I still couldn’t sit very long and had to take back support cushions to meetings. And I had incessant hip pain, a pinch in the back of my right knee, an aching right ankle, and sometimes just numbness or pins and needles all the way down the right leg.

On that international flight I mentioned, I took a seat cushion, a back cushion, and an old-fashioned ice pack that I had flight attendants refill 6 times on the way there and 6 times on the way back. (They were very nice about it, by the way.) I walk around a lot on flights and do stretches wherever I can find a little space. I usually end up talking with someone else who has back pain and/or sciatica. Most of them are about as hopeful as that van driver.

Ok, I think we’re caught up to New Year’s Eve 2016. I checked out the book and started reading. A week later (January 6, 2017), I was almost pain-free for two days. I could sit for an hour. I played basketball two nights ago for the first time in a year. I could stand up and sit down at will!

After a couple of blissful days, some of the pain came back. I’ve been a serious student of Dr. Sarno’s other books and I found an amazing website, tmswiki.org, with all sorts of free information. It’s now March 13, 2017, and I hardly even notice the pain any more. In fact, I only notice it when I realize it has been gone all morning.

I’m hesitant to go too much into the book because I’m at the stage right now where it seems like magic. And I’m not sure if discovering it the way it’s presented in the book is part of the magic. But here’s a brief overview:

My pain is real but it’s not necessary. It’s not fulfilling its usual purpose of warning or keeping me from doing something dangerous. There’s nothing wrong with my back. The herniated disc was there all along and has nothing to do with my pain.

But there’s something in my subconscious that my brain thinks it needs to protect me from. And a great way to do that is to distract me with physical pain. It doesn’t have to be something big — it could just be everyday stresses or anger.

The trick is to shine some light on that. Convince your brain that you can handle the repressed emotion and it doesn’t need to distract you. Just reading the book provides most of this education. Reviewing a few daily reminders keeps you on track. And giving up on all your other attempts seems to be part of the trick — no more stretches, exercises, magic balls, physical therapy, etc. Just get back to work — sit and sleep normally, go for a run, play some ball. And your brain does the rest.

That’s it. For reals. I can barely believe it myself. It’s almost infuriating when I think of all the time, money, and suffering I’ve been through. And all it took was reading a book and thinking about it for a few weeks.

I have no idea if it will work for you. But, holy cow, you should try.

[Update May 24, 2017] When I wrote the above, I still had some minor daily pain (especially evenings) and occasional “relapses”. Another couple of months and it’s all gone. I catch myself slouching in a chair – something I couldn’t do without sharp pain and pins and needles a month ago. So, for me, the full recovery took about 5 1/2 months. This is in line with several others I’ve met in online forums. Interestingly, those who meet directly with Dr. Sarno tend to have a much quicker recovery – perhaps something about the authority of a doctor makes it all click into place more rapidly.