Last week I was flat on my back, at least as often as I could be. Pain was the flavor of the day. Day after day. Pain, I’ve discovered, is a good teacher.
My lessons began on Saturday morning. When I awakened, I sensed my back was not “right” enough for pulling weeds, and so I stayed inside, began the weekly laundry and prepared the grocery shopping list instead. Late in the morning, I decided to try our foam roller to crack and pop my back into shape. I spied it under a piece of furniture, and as I bent over and reached for it, I put my lower back into spasm…
What I learned:
#1. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
I reached for that foam roller with the intent of fixing my back, not making it worse. My good intentions put me into a kind of physical hell that I couldn’t escape to put that foam roller to use. Good intentions = physical hell. See the connection?
#2. You can go from 60 to 0 in 1 second.
The sudden onslaught of back spasms and debilitating pain reminded me what a fragile grasp we have on life as we know it. A few weeks before, a friend, who was the primary caretaker of his 2-year-old and 6-month-old children, went running, fell and broke his arm so severely he required surgery, steel plates and screws, and a few-day hospital stay, followed by at least 3 months of no lifting. Life as he and his family knew it was over — at least for those 3 months of healing. (I could point out that this man intended to run to get healthy, and his fall on the pavement led to his physical hell. Good intentions + pavement = physical hell. More evidence for Lesson #1.)
Last weekend, while I had been willing to forego lawn work for the sake of my back, I had cleaning and laundry and shopping to do plus a week ahead that included flying and attending a conference where I would sit, sit, sit. I did not have time for back pain until it happened. Saturday, I went from feeling about 60 percent normal to 0 percent normal in one second, in one unfortunate bend and reach that dictated everything that followed. The lesson? We are not guaranteed the next second, let alone tomorrow. Appreciate what you have now. Youth is, indeed, wasted on the young, and I will only be older tomorrow. Live now, live well, and flex with the unexpected. Which you should expect.
#3. Priorities become clear.
Much of what might be considered “essential” loses its importance when back pain prioritizes your life. For example, weekends are my opportunity to clean house and laundry, plan meals, and shop for the week ahead. During the week, I do dishes, wipe down counters, and generally keep things as tidy as possible when living with other people, but I save my real cleaning — sweeping, mopping, vacuuming — for the weekend. And if I expect company anytime in the upcoming week, I amp up my efforts. Last weekend, the weekend of my severe back pain, my children were coming to celebrate three of my sons’ birthdays, and I planned a somewhat elaborate cookout menu, including homemade potato salad and a Mississippi mud pie for dessert.
Enter back pain. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t shop. I couldn’t clean. I couldn’t bend down, I couldn’t reach out, I couldn’t lift. I could barely move. For the first time, I was able to subdue my inner critic enough to look at my house and see its condition as “good enough.” My menu went from elaborate to basic. It included no dessert. My children enjoyed a simple meal and each other. And when it was over and my back was shot, I grabbed an ice pack and hit the couch. Priorities. Back pain helps establish priorities.
#4. Even “The Little Red Hen” can ask for help and get it.
Back pain — especially when it is visibly distressing — makes it easier to ask for help. Typically, I tend to be “The Little Red Hen.” Except that instead of asking others to help and getting turned down, I don’t bother asking and simply do it myself. And then, unlike the little red hen, I allow everyone to share in the results of my labor.
Back pain changed that for me last weekend. I asked my son to drive me to Kmart to pick up a muscle relaxant I had gotten prescribed for me. He moved laundry from the dryer to a basket, then to the table where I could fold it while standing. He moved laundry from the washer to the dryer or a basket, depending on whether the item was machine dried or line dried. He vacuumed. He drove me to Publix, pushed the cart, grabbed for each item, unloaded the cart, loaded and unloaded the car when we got home, made sure items were at a location I could reach easily and otherwise was at my service. The Little Red Hen who futilely requested help was nowhere to be found. Back pain — visibly distressing — made it easy to ask for help and get it. Of course, I’d rather be healthy and do it myself. But maybe, just maybe, the experience was enough to prompt me to delegate and ask for help even when I’m not suffering. “Oh, Adam, could you…?”
#5. Quick, complete care helps you heal faster.
Misery led me to quick thinking and action. From past experiences, I knew a muscle relaxant combined with loads of ibuprofen would help. Since I hurt my back before noon on a Saturday, I knew my doctor’s office likely had someone on call. I called, explained my situation, and had the doctor call in a prescription for a muscle relaxant. I took that plus four ibuprofen as soon as I had them and repeated the drugs in the proper intervals. Since my husband is a physical therapist, I knew my best bet was to lay on an ice pack and put myself in the 90-90 position, sort of like the photo above. (Clearly, global warming has impacted glaciers and mountain ranges.)
In addition, I took naps and took it easy. If I had to do tasks, I modified my actions, using a grabber pole for reaching and otherwise protected my back. I alerted my workplace that I would likely call in sick Monday. I also got the first available appointment with my chiropractor. In contrast, when I taught school, I tended to press on with teaching despite pain and illness. (It was more difficult to rewrite lesson plans for a substitute than it was to simply go ahead and teach in misery.) Those pain and illnesses lasted a long, long time because I didn’t take the time and actions that would help me heal.
All of the actions (or inactions) I took for my back — quick, complete care — helped me feel better, not pain-free, but on the road to recovery. And that leads me to my final lesson:
#6. You can go from 0 to 30 in 3 days.
When back spasms incapacitate you, it is all consuming. You alter your breathing. You try to find a position that will make you more comfortable. You marvel that such an insignificant movement could trigger such a massive event. You wonder at the severity of the pain, the suddenness of its onslaught, the completeness of your misery. You ask “Will I ever feel normal again?”
Even if you take quick action and attack the pain with relaxants and pain killers and ice, you feel pain. (Pain is good because it instructs you what not to do; it just doesn’t feel good.) By the time my children arrived, I had managed to carefully prepare a simple meal and then enjoyed being at the table with them, but when I stood to begin clearing, I suffered a sudden, new kind of back agony. (And, no, I wasn’t trying to get out of work.) I haltingly walked from the table, got the ice pack from the freezer, and got into the 90-90 position to ice. I was done. My back told me. (I hate backtalk.) Instead of feeling better, I felt worse. It was scary.
My problem was, I could call in sick to work Monday but I had a flight and a conference to attend on Tuesday and Wednesday. How could I possibly be improved enough to make that event? It seemed impossible.
But Monday morning — miracle of miracles, even before the chiropractic appointment — I was back at 30 percent or so. So much better! I kept improving through the week, probably just held steady by sitting through the conference and dragging my suitcase around, but the improvement was almost as sudden and surprising as the onslaught of the back pain itself. (But definitely more welcome.) Back pain taught me that while it takes longer to resume back health than to lose it, the pain would pass.
In summary or the short lessons for back pain…
Pain happens. Act quickly to take care of it. Reconsider your priorities. Ask for help. Take time to heal. Use (legal) drugs, ice packs, and the 90-90 position. Visit your doctor. Don’t lose hope. This too shall pass. Eventually. Give it time.
*In the photo: A photo illustration, of course. The giant man is demonstrating the 90-90 position using a giant chair on what could be a giant ice pack (or a diminutive glacier, at least in comparison to the man). It’s a good image to mimic when nursing a bad back.