Back Pain? You Have the Means to Change

“If one takes care of the means, the ends will take care of itself.” You may recognize this quote from The Voluntaryist where it reinforces a discourse of non-political, non-violent strategies. Yet it is equally applicable to all facets of one’s life, including health. Because if you’re not feeling good, not too much else matters. That’s the purpose of this post — to share a bit of information (that is, some means) that can bring about an improved quality of life.

I am now 38. Not an-old timer, but not the youngest cat around. Like yourself, I’ve had my share of bumps and injuries along the way. While most of them were temporary, one problem has been with me a while and will be something I deal with until I move on from this reality: back pain. Perhaps you, too, have been similarly afflicted. If so, I encourage you to check out Stuart McGill and Esther Gokhale.

Before I delve deeper into these two individuals and what they offer, let me share a bit of background on why I was motivated to find them.

In school, I was never too keen to participate in team sports. The rigidity of rules and practice schedules simply weren’t appealing. But in 10th grade I had a weight lifting class, which was exciting. So I kept at it. And my body tended to respond favorably.

By the time I graduated high school I weighed a lean 165 pounds. A few years later I was up to 195 pounds. I was eating clean. I was getting sufficient sleep. I wasn’t boozing. I felt dialed in at my genetic potential. So I did a cycle of steroids. I stacked two injectables and put on another 10 pounds. At my height of 5’7”, 205 pounds was a lot of weight.

At my strongest, I squatted 575 pounds, did a one-rep max of 385 pounds on the benchpress, and curled 70 pound dumbbells for sets. I could lift my Celica’s rear wheels off the ground by the car’s bumper. That was 17 years ago.

Little did I know that the extreme strain I was putting on my body was exacerbating — and was potentially even the cause — of my back pain: spondylolisthesis. In layman’s terms one of my vertebra has slid forward.

I believe I set the stage for this condition when I wrestled my first year of high school. Most of my opponents had wrestled for years and knew fancy moves, while I relied on strength to break holds or throw them. This approach netted me more wins than losses, but one morning I woke up in pain. It took me a while to roll over and plant my feet on the ground. Trying to shower, I had to wrap a towel around myself and ask my mom to help me to lift my leg over the side of the tub.

After a few days I went to a man in a white coat who assigned me some “physical therapy.” What I realize now is that I should have been put into a back brace for four to six months to allow my broken bone — part of the vertebra called the pars interarticularis — to heal. Since that didn’t happen, the fracture was later exacerbated by the extreme weight lifting described above.

By my mid-20s I started to experienced lower back pain. I went to another white coat. This time I was told to: 1) never get a gut, 2) never do heavy squats, and 3) never sleep on my stomach. That all sounded just fine, but a simple list of prohibitions left me wondering if there was more that could be done.

I thought, if my lower back has issues, I should just strengthen it! Perhaps my vertebra will realign itself. So I proceeded to incorporate exercises into my regime that targeted the core, such as the cable axe chop.

Still, I felt lower back pain.

I reached out to my good friend Dan, a lifelong health and fitness guru. He put Stuart McGill on my radar. McGill spent three decades at the University of Waterloo where, at his lab and clinic, he focused on low back pain and rehab.

According to McGill, doing heavy rotational exercises was not only not helpful, but detrimental to folks like me who have lower back issues. From his book Back Mechanic: The Secrets to a Healthy Spine Your Doctor Isn’t Telling You:

Spondylolisthesis – a slippage of one vertebra on another… Usually a bone in the neural arch, behind the vertebrae, is fractured allowing the slip to occur. . . These fractures are the result of excessive bending and twisting through the spine, pushing it to its maximum range. Spondylolisthesis is common among gymnasts, cricket bowlers and some weight training individuals who repeatedly bend their spines while under heavy loads.

Rather than turn to surgery to address back pain, McGill encourages ‘spinal hygiene.’ In other words, he advocates consciousness of your movements, only doing those that are constructive and avoid the destructive. For example:

  • many exercises may not be good for spine, such as the standard sit-up or the superman (laying on your belly with your arms and legs outstretched and elevated off the ground)
  • a 10-20 minute walk at a good pace is probably the best thing you can do for your back
  • bird dogs, side planks, and curl ups create stability and endurance
  • the spine’s structure can accurately be imagined as a radio mast supported by guy wires connective tissues and muscles that together facilitate bracing, twisting, extension and flexion
  • the shoulders and hips should facilitate motion while the core is used to stop motion

In addition to McGill another person’s work I’ve found useful is Esther Gokhale (pronounced “go-clay”). Her main thrust is posture. Credit goes to my lady, Amanda B. Johnson, for putting Gokhale on my radar.

Gokhale did her own research after suffering from severe back pain and a not-too-helpful back surgery. She visited people in parts of Africa and southeast Asia who haven’t been severely influenced by Western furniture and fashion. She reviewed art and ads from a century ago. She looked at how babies sit. And she found some commonalities that, if integrated into your life, can bring about a pain-free back.

In her 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, Gokhale suggests ways to achieve proper, healthy posture while laying, sitting, standing, or walking that accords with our autonomy. She points out how this has to be a conscious decision because most of us live in a culture that emphasizes bad posture.

Think about your car seat, or an airplane seat. They tend to be cupped, which encourages slouching. Your shoes? They likely have a heel, which impacts your body mechanics while walking. And many of us daily spend hours at a computer or behind the wheel, with arms forward, shoulders slumped. Gokhale suggests ways to surmount these situations.

I had bought an inversion table thinking that it could be helpful for my back pain. But as Gokhale says, such tools are used just for minutes a day. More important is to ensure proper posture while engaged for hours in other activities — sitting, standing, lying. It makes sense. And I can honestly say that after becoming familiar with Gokhale’s work I am much more mindful of my posture and am better for it.

These days I’m back to a healthy, functional 170 pounds. Having implemented McGill’s and Gokhale’s methods into my life has left me with more pain-free days than not. This has inspired me to share these methods with you, in case you may be similarly helped.

If you’ve experienced back pain I encourage you to invest in yourself. Don’t automatically turn to a white coat for a “solution” of surgery, which almost always just migrates the issue to other vertebra, without trying these non-invasive techniques. Learn about your back anatomy. Investigate the protocols suggested by McGill and Gokhale and find what resonates. You’re worth it.

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