A Pain in the…Back

When I was in university (the middle time, getting my Engineering degree) I used to cause great consternation and amusement among my friends when I would suddenly sit bolt upright in class. One of them commented that it looked like I was being stabbed in the back.

Funnily (not really, believe me back pain isn’t funny) enough, that’s exactly how it felt. Okay, I’ve never been physically stabbed in the back, so it’s how I imagined it felt; an intense, hot, stabbing pain, shooting through the skin of my back and into my spine.

I’m fairly tall (a bit over 6′) and and the desks in the McMaster lecture halls were cramped. Definitely not designed for people over about 5’10.” In addition, I was really thin, somewhere around 150 lbs, I lived in a permanent stoop, I was hunched under the weight of all the crap we hauled around and for 50 minutes per hour, multiple hours per day, I was hunched over in those tiny desks.

All of which is to say that, in my early 20’s I was well on the way to having serious back issues.

Now, over the course of the next couple of years, these stabbing pains went away. Good news, right?

Not really. The reason they went away is because the muscles between my right shoulder blade and my spine began to harden and calcify. By the time I was 30, I had a permanent, hard knot of muscle in that spot, and a growing numb spot on the skin over top of it.

Seriously, I couldn’t feel anything but pressure. If I had a back itch I could feel the scratching on the skin around the numb spot, but not in the spot itself.

At that time I had gotten into rock climbing, and one of the guys I climbed with was studying acupuncture. I  told him about my problem, and after he asked to take a look, showed it to him. His recommendation? A course of electro shock acupuncture to bring the muscles back to life.

Fortunately, I found an acupuncturist (from Beijing, as it happens) who could do exactly that. For 3 months I had needles stuck into my back, attached to electrodes, and electric shocks sent through the dying muscles. Because that’s what was going on in there, the muscles were dying and calcifying, effectively turning into bone.

Over the years since then, I’ve needed

  • more acupuncture (though never as serious as that first course),
  • chiropractic (because the muscle knotting pulled my spine out of shape),
  • a crap ton of intense, painful deep tissue massage
  • years of yoga instruction and practice

all to keep that bad spot from reverting.

My back will never be “normal” again. That ship sailed 30 years ago when I let the problem set in too deeply. Regular yoga helps, as does massage, and recently I’ve discovered two amazing things, both courtesy of others.

Dr. Ho’s Pain Management System, courtesy a hockey buddy. Out of the blue one Sunday he gave a product testimonial about how his wife swears by the thing. And when I say “out of the blue” I mean it literally. We weren’t even talking about back pain, and he just told a story about how she loved this thing.

So I got one. And I use it for my back, and I (and my second and third boys) use the footpads to keep our feet and calves feeling good.

In addition, my sister in law (an occupational therapist who swears by the thing) gave me a mini roller ball for Christmas. This thing is the size and hardness of a golf ball, and has tiny little nubs to really dig into the sore spots. I’ve tried:

  • regular foam rollers, but they’re all too big
  • tennis balls, too big and too squishy
  • squash balls, right size, too squishy

This mini roller ball is genuinely amazing. You can heat it (in hot water, not the microwave) or use it cold. Either way, it digs into the tiny spots, like the gaps between my vertebra, or the tiny muscles along the bottom of my shoulder blade.

The point of all this?

We make decisions, for good or ill, that will affect us for the rest of our lives. My decision to ignore the increasing pains in my back, followed by my decision to laugh off the knots permanently growing there, until a serious side effect arose (the nerves dying in the skin of my back), means that for however many years I have left on the green side of the grass, I will be living with those choices.

So, whatever decision you find yourself facing, think hard, and choose wisely.