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The Indirect Route I Took to Heal From Back Pain

Three things I practiced, and four years later, I’m free of back pain.

Thirty minutes of confinement in a mechanical tube, with the bang, bang, bang, and radiation of an MRI, was not on the list of things I was itching to do. But when back pain had gone from bad to debilitating, I wanted answers as to why.

Using his pen as if it were a bayonet, the orthopedic surgeon made a stabbing gesture at the image of my spine illuminated by a lightbox in his office, and pointing to my lumbar region he said, “Degenerative disk disease.”

“What? Wait …disk disease? How?” I asked.

“It’s a fancy term for arthritis,” he said. “Your disks have degenerated, and you have bone rubbing on bone…right here,” as he stabbed once more at my L2-L5 vertebra on the screen.

The word “disease” stuck like an advertising jingle on repeat in my mind.

“Your spine is healthy, and your disks look like those of any other fifty-five-year-old woman. There isn’t anything I can do for you other than a prescription for painkillers — I’ll leave one at the front desk,” he said.

If his delivery were a dog, I imagined it as one of those sad-looking, saggy-faced Shar Pei’s.

Desperate for more than prescription pain meds, I blurted, “Painkillers? That’s it…what about physical therapy…would that help?”

With a shrug that implied my idea was cockamamie, he said, “It couldn’t hurt. I’ll leave a prescription at the front desk for therapy, too” then he disappeared through the door as if under sudden attack from Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Leaving his office, I dragged my diseased spine with me and felt as sad and saggy as the doctor’s demeanor. Dumbfounded by the diagnosis, I was annoyed that I had to be the one to suggest physical therapy. Isn’t it his job to dispense with the health care options ? He’s the fancy specialist, after all.

My back ached. My brain was on overload. I collapsed in the driver’s seat of my car and cried.

It’s been four years since that doctor’s visit, and more discoveries and life lessons than I can recount here about my healing from back pain. The first lesson, however — and possibly the most important of them all — is that there is no one-size-fits-all program for back pain. There are no quick fixes and no medical White Knights.

Health care is as personal as it gets, and our health is 100% our personal responsibility. While this may be stating the ridiculously obvious, until I was confronted with a health crisis that a bowl of chicken soup and a good night’s sleep didn’t cure, this ridiculously obvious fact wasn’t a foregone conclusion. It took some doing for me to comprehend.

Here’s the route I took and a couple of tools that helped me navigate a path into, and through, the wilderness of back pain.

About the time it dawned on me that the White Knight wasn’t coming, I noticed that I spoke about the pain in terms of “my pain.” This made the pain my possession, which made me feel weirdly special, like Gollum and his Precious.

Having been familiar with Byron Katy’s work, I asked myself, “Is it true that the pain belongs to me, and if this were true, who would I have to be to own pain?”

Pain isn’t something we own. If it were, this would make us pain-owners with all the responsibility and pride of pain ownership — like owning a home, and home ownership.

From this vantage point, it was clear to me that my language about the pain had to change, and this was something within my power to do.

Tell Truth to Bullshit

It was Brené Brown’s book, Braving The Wilderness, where I learned the practice of speaking truth to bullshit — which is pretty much exactly as it sounds. The gist of it is that when we hear bullshit and tell the truth in kindness, we invite the possibility of real relationship with others and ourselves.

As I spoke truth to my story about the pain being “mine,” and re-framed the narrative as experiences of pain that came and went, I felt strangely exposed. It wasn’t long before underlying feelings of lack of support, the instability of a self-worth I’d derived by what I do and not who I am, and shame began to show up.

It was here that I had my first experience of the mind-body connection to pain. Back pain, like a guide, directed me to what was beneath the pain, to what actually needed to be healed.

This part of the journey was slow going, and something akin to a dark night of the soul. As the pain limited my mobility and demanded I slow down, old emotional wounds surfaced, each one with a story of its own.

The days and nights melded into one, giving new meaning to the words mercy and patience. The lack of mobility and slow pace was a bitter medicine I had to pinch my nose to swallow, yet this proved to be exactly the right remedy to allow the emotional pain to surface and the stories these emotions told to be examined and, in time, released.

It was then that I began noticing longer and more frequent gaps between the sensations of pain.

Walk The Brain Talk

For reasons I couldn’t explain at the time, walking was the one activity that relieved the pain. So I walked, sometimes five miles per-day.

It was Norman Doidge in his book on neuroplasticity, The Brain’s Way of Healing; Stories of Remarkable Recoveries and Discoveries, that later helped me unpack some of the mystery about how walking may relieve pain. Filled with real-life stories and research to support his stories, Doidge praises walking for its brain-training benefits.

My spotty translation of what I learned from Doidge is that the brain has different centers responsible for bio-mechanical and bio-chemical reactions that coordinate movement and bodily functions.

Brisk walking engages multiple brain centers at once. These centers control things like muscle contraction and relaxation, mobilization of joints, and the release of neurochemicals like acetylcholine and dopamine, to name only a few. Given all that the brain has to juggle during a complex activity like walking, it’s more proof the body knows how to heal itself, and that movement is medicine.

The thing that is so beautiful about this is it’s something that anyone has access to. — Norman Doidge

No Fancy Yoga

Walking helped a lot (and still does). But I couldn’t walk 24/7, so I needed other tools, too. Having practiced yoga for years, I believed yoga held the most promise for a healthy back. At the same time, I knew it was filled with the peril of re-injuring myself.

Confident, however, that with proper education I could protect myself from injury, I enrolled in a therapeutic yoga teacher training that focused on anatomy and principles of alignment.

To be clear, this is NOT a pitch for yoga teacher training as a remedy for recurring back pain — far from it. Nor is it my “Yoga Changed My Life” story. Yoga alone didn’t cure me of back pain, but it did lay a foundation for a yoga and movement practice that incrementally did change my life, by helping me learn how to move intelligently.

Consistency of yoga practice over and against perfecting yoga poses has proven to be the secret sauce for restoring and inhabiting my body again — that, and variety of movement. I’ve adopted a “just-say-no-to-fancy-yoga-poses” policy, and gone rogue from traditional yoga adding, movement therapy and Functional Range Conditioning, which gives my brain variety, my nervous system new challenges, adding strength and mobility I never imagined possible.

While my lumbar spine is a little creaky, and sometimes cranky, I’m no longer stuck with back pain. I’ve made movement my medicine, and I’ve chosen to live, with, or without pain. It may sound crazy to say, but back pain cured what ailed me.

Edited by, Clelia Lewis

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