A lifelong athlete, now in middle age and living with back pain, shares vital lessons that he’s learned along the way.
First, my story: When I was young, I thought of myself as an athlete. In high school, I played the usual sports: football, baseball and basketball. I also excelled at tennis, which I played competitively at the collegiate level and into my early 30s. I prided myself on my physical stamina. I took care of my body. My back was never a problem.
Then, one day, my back betrayed me. Now, it’s a minor miracle that I am not in a wheelchair. Because of a combination of scoliosis, spinal stenosis, arthritis, disc degeneration, and, as it turns out, a bit too much tennis, I have had to rethink everything I thought I knew about the human body. In the process, I have become somewhat of an expert on back pain and how to manage it.
Almost everyone has back pain at some point in life, and most back pain goes away on its own within a month. But chronic sufferers will try just about anything to stop the pain: gravity boots, traction, ice, heat, massage therapy, acupuncture, hypnosis, painkillers, and spinal injections. I’ve tried them all. For me, the most effective thing was rethinking my life. That meant:
- Unlearning many of the lifelong bad habits that may have contributed to my back pain in the first place (poor posture, lousy eating habits, lack of exercise, et cetera)
- Confronting aspects of my own personality that may be, ahem, counterproductive
- Recognizing that a certain amount of pain may always be a part of my life
- Accepting that my body can no longer do some things
- Understanding that I may have to work just as hard to maintain my body as I once did to strengthen and improve it
The one thing you don’t have to accept is that back pain is going to take over your entire life. For me, as a former athlete, the hardest thing about dealing with chronic back pain was feeling like my body was failing me. I had done everything right, I thought, so it shouldn’t be happening. It wasn’t fair. As it turns out, though, I had a lot to learn and plenty to unlearn.
Growing up, the words “No Pain, No Gain” were written on the locker-room wall in block letters two feet high. I lived by this maxim, believing wholeheartedly that if I wasn’t always pushing myself 120 percent to be stronger, fitter, faster, and better, I would be a loser on the tennis court and in life. This isn’t just the mind set of high-school athletes, of course; it’s the mind set of many people, the very mantra of professional success. I’ve always wanted to succeed, so I’ve always pushed myself, too hard in some cases.
Now when I exercise, I follow precisely the opposite motto: “If There’s Pain, There’s No Gain.” I try not to overdo it, but believe me, it is torture. For me, it’s torture not to take those extra laps in the pool; not to walk that extra half mile; not to pump those weights until my arms collapse; not to lift that 40-pound bag of dog food; not to mow the lawn, rake the leaves, shovel the snow, or try to move the couch. No, these days, to avoid doing something stupid that might injure my back, I must force myself to “under do” just about everything.
But there is a bright side to my life in moderation. I now have a lot more time to read, and I can devote more time to hobbies I enjoy, such as music, cooking, dog training, and poker. I also have a great excuse to not do certain things I never liked in the first place, like hauling firewood, cleaning the gutters, shoveling snow, and other chores.
The way I look at it now, chronic back pain has improved my life in some ways. Just don’t tell my wife.
Expert Advice for Coping with Back Pain
Don’t Tough It Out: If you have severe back pain, a fever or other symptoms, call your doctor immediately. If you have new back pain that lasts longer than two days or chronic back pain that isn’t getting better after two weeks of treatment, schedule an appointment with your doctor. He or she may perform a physical exam, suggest imaging tests to rule out serious disease or injury, obtain other lab work if needed, and recommend treatments to target the pain and improve your mobility and function.
- Create An Action Plan: Talk to your doctor about strategies that you can use if and when back pain strikes. This may include rest, cold and hot packs, and over-the-counter medicines or prescription medications.
- Stay Active: With your doctor’s approval, keep walking and doing other activities. Studies show that prolonged bed rest may increase pain and extend recovery time.
- Quit Smoking: If you are a smoker, it may be contributing to your back pain, as it reduces blood flow and may contribute to wear and tear of discs in your spine.
- Consider Alternative Therapies: Acupuncture, massage therapy and spinal manipulation performed by chiropractors, physical therapists, osteopaths and some doctors may help manage or relieve pain.
- Consult Other Experts: If you are managing persistent back pain, talk to your doctor about whether a pain specialist, psychologist or psychiatrist may be able to help you develop strategies for dealing with the pain.
Editor’s Note: This is the story of one person’s experience with back pain. It is not intended to provide medical advice or guidance, and is not a substitute for a doctor or other health professional’s care. Please consult your doctor for advice on managing your own back pain.
When to seek emergency help
- Call 911 or seek emergency help if you have back pain and any of these warning signs:
- Severe pain or sudden worsening of back pain
- Severe pain following a major fall or other accident
- Sudden onset of severe tearing or ripping pain
- Sudden arm or leg numbness or weakness
- Sudden chest pain or pain across your upper back, shoulders, arms or jaw
- Inability to move your arms or legs
- Shaking chills
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or passing out
- History of cancer or a weak immune system
- New loss of bowel or bladder control
- Numbness in your lower back or pelvic area.