Friday, December 2, 2016

On Biking and Back Pain

My back problems began when I was 18 and working in a kitchen, spending long shifts on my feet. One day I reached into the trunk of my car for something and then couldn't stand up again for the excruciating pain in my lumbar spine. After a few days it mysteriously disappeared, and that pattern has continued for the 10+ years since. A few times a year my back will suddenly decide that it hates me, and I'll spend five to ten days bent over and only semi-mobile, and then things return to normal.

In March of 2016 I experienced an episode that was markedly worse than all the others, lasting nearly two weeks and with the pain spreading down my right leg. Concerned, I got an MRI referral, and learned that I have a herniated disc at L5-S1. I started physical therapy, and though the acute pain disappeared, a new problem cropped up: constant spasms in my erector spinae muscles, particularly on the right side.

In July, which was two or three months into PT, I went on the road with Cider, destination Colorado. Kim, my PTA, raised an eyebrow when I told her my plan and said, "Well, that'll be a test of your back." I knew it was probably going to hurt, but I went anyway. Kim gave me some stretches to do at red lights and gas stops, and I did them religiously. They helped. In fact, when I returned home, I felt better than ever.

Then I returned Cider's bike and got back on my old cruiser, and the pain immediately reappeared. Guess I found the problem. The slightly hunched-over position caused by riding with my feet out in front of me was enough to severely irritate my back. I had no car and no plans to buy one, so I bought a new bike and lent the cruiser to Rogue.

After another month or so, the doctor overseeing my treatment told me that if PT hadn't helped by then, it wasn't going to, and set me free. We did seem to have reached a plateau of effectiveness, so I took my irritating spinal spasms and went on my way (meaning, of course, I went on the road).

I also bought a book called Treat Your Own Back, by Robin MacKenzie. I no longer remember who recommended it to me, but they were adament that it was pure gold in paper form, so I spent the $12 and hoped for the best.

I'll say now that it may be the best $12 I ever spent. The muscular spasms are still a mystery, but when I tweaked my back walking Bee out of a garage the day before Thanksgiving and the disc pain reappeared, I immediately starting doing the things recommended by the book, and it worked. The movements were like the ones Kim had given me, but the book included a more thorough explanation of the reasons for the stretches, and also specified movements that I should NOT do, something I'd never been told.

I spent Thanksgiving on my feet in the kitchen, alternating with stretching on the floor, and being very cautious with the types of movements I made. The pain hovered at a tolerable level, threatening but never blooming into the awful dysfunction that had me confined to the couch and taking percocet for two weeks last spring. By the next morning, I was convinced that I could keep it at bay indefinitely. That was mind-blowing.

Two days after that I started a new job, working overnights in a warehouse where my entire job was to lift and move boxes and occasionally push carts. At the end of the first shift, my back hurt, but it didn't hurt any more than my feet or my knees. Two days later, the mysterious end-of-pain arrived, and I was fine. I'd gotten through the acute phase and maintained my ability to do all my daily tasks, and I hadn't taken so much as an ibuprofen.

In future I'll make a post with some photos and examples of the exercises and an analysis of my riding position and how the muscle spasms affect my turns.

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