Plus 10 Simple Ways to Help You Feel Great
D. Slater Smith
I wake, no alarm yet. Damn. It’s too early. Nature is hazily calling for fulfillment. I’m not so young anymore and apparently this is what happens as the middle years beckon on the horizon. I look over at my wife blissfully sleeping and suppress a small surge of jealousy.
My body conducts a systems check.
What kind of day is this going to be?
The dull ache in my left butt cheek is still there. I shift to the right, trying not to wake the light sleeper next to me. As I turn, my lower back comes alive with pin-prick complaints that migrate quickly down the center of my left leg terminating at my 3rd toe (why always that toe?). I groan as I creakily return to my previous position.
Now I know: ‘That type of day’.
It’s been like this for at least 2 years but it’s really hard to recall when I started to notice.
What’s going on?
Your Back Is a Wondrous Device
It’s true. Your back is amazing. The spinal cord with its attendant bones, muscles and nerves. Veins and arteries carrying oxygenated blood to-and-fro. All of it in hard to believe orchestration.
The range of motion of the spine allows us to achieve amazing physical feats as anyone who has seen Simone Biles perform can confirm. The fact that your spine can do these extraordinary things, any frustrated prosthetics or robotics engineer will tell you, is an evolutionary marvel.
90% of earth’s animals lack a back bone.
On the face of it, it seems a stunning indictment against our uprightness. Animals as diverse as insects to octopi manage just fine without one. The idea of not a having spine has appeal at 5:30am until, upon reflection, I realize all of those creatures carry their heads fairly close to the earth – sobering.
80% of us will complain about our backs at some point
How humans scrabbled to the top of the evolutionary ladder is of course an area of intense scientific study. And while the timeline of when walking started is generally understood, why we took our first steps is not clear.
The human spine is a bit of a mess
When it comes to comfort. Standing up moved our spine from being a natural bow to a precarious ‘S’ shaped column which puts tremendous pressure on the lower back. No wonder most of us complain about back pain at some point…
Tradeoffs and compromises.
The reality is, Evolution really does not ‘care’ I’m in pain (if such a thing were possible). My discomfort has no bearing when weighed against the off-setting advantages of an upright spine. Sore Back? Irrelevant. Uncomfortable? Tough. Able to reproduce? Yes? Well now….Ding! Ding! Ding!
Which brings us to babies.
Or rather pregnancies. For women, what could be more destabilizing than the swaying bundle of university tuition in front of you?
Women have ‘reinforced’ backs. Really.
To assert that natural selection doesn’t care may be a bit harsh, or at least misleading in light of unexpected findings that women have fortified spines so that pregnancy and childbirth aren’t terminally uncomfortable. Pregnancy is challenging enough and natural selection would certainly frown on women opting out due to being overwhelmed.
Men, with our woefully inadequate spines, are spared this challenge – one could only imagine how the birthrate would plummet...
Still, my back, with all its evolutionary flaws, is an amazing device. Certainly an inconvenient truth when it seems possessed by a rebellious spirit.
Back Pain is Normal
The reality is, back pain is so common that it is better viewed as a design flaw. Almost anything can trigger it: Accidents, strains, nerve irritation, disk damage, pregnancy, arthritis – the list goes on.
If back pain is normal, then what can I do about it? Rest, right? Actually – no. Or kind of no. The research is quite clear. Mild activity to get things moving again. Motion really is lotion (for most of us).
My 10 Ways to Feeling Great*
- Awareness – I (grudgingly) accepted that having back pain is normal.
Attitude – I stay positive. Small actions help get me into the right frame of mind. I’m not passive and I take the lead rather than waiting for my medical team to ‘fix’ me.
Visualization: I recall a time, place, event that made me happy. I focus on the sights, sounds, scents, tastes and emotions. I slow my breathing and relax my body. I stay in this place for at least 10 minutes.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation: I find a comfortable position. I focus on the muscle or group of muscles I am playing with, nothing else. Not work, not the kids, breakfast - nothing.
Starting with my feet: Tense, count to 10. Relax. Count to 10.
I work my way up tensing and relaxing each muscle group in my body on the right side: calf, thigh, buttocks, stomach etc. up to my head. Then work my way down the left side of my body.
Movement is medicine - Become Stronger. Light and regular activity is better than nothing. While having broad goals are fine, focusing something I can measure works best for me.
Luckily, my wife joins me.
We select 2 exercises and hold for each stretch or exercise for at least 10 seconds. Our target is at least 30 seconds. We move for at least 5 minutes in the morning. At the end of a week, add 5 more minutes and select 2 more exercises.
Minimize Sitting – I break working sessions into chunks because it’s good to get something to drink and to stretch my legs. I make it social by adding a friend.
Back Support and Posture – When I do sit, I use adjustable back support to support my lower back at work, while travelling or relaxing.
Bed is the great deceiver. It seems like I would get better, but too much rest actually makes me feel worse in the long run.
I Walk! The days when I do the most walking are the same days I feel the best.
I don’t analyze why. The reported research in the Lancet backs me up. Walk ‘n work.
Create Healthy Habits & Tools – We use ‘gamification’ tools like fitbit®. Most of these devices/apps come equipped with prompts to remind us to move and helps to set achievable goals.
Tip! Include friends and co-workers to foster mildly competitive activities such as number of steps walked in the morning. Even better, walk ‘n talk each morning for 10 minutes.
Chiropractor/Osteopathy/Acupuncture/Physiotherapy – Yes, but I limit to 10 sessions max in total. Research says more is unlikely to help.
Massage – Yes! I’ll never give these up. Ever.
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*This is not medical advice. This is stuff I do that may work for you.