My Dear Old Dad and His Back Pain

When I am working with someone with a back problem, part of what I try to do is help them understand the importance of putting in a certain amount of effort and energy into preventing a re-occurrence of this problem or keeping it from being a major problem in their lives. I often ask people if I have told them the story of 'My Dear Old Dad'.

As a young man, my father tried to enlist as a solider in World War II. He had passed the physical examination and he and the rest of the row of disrobed men turned to walk out the door. The doctor took one look at his back and bellowed "you'r no man for this army...get out of here". As a young man growing up on a farm one of the contests that the boys used to have was to see who could pull the most pounds on the grain truck scales. They would squat, reach down to the scale platform handles and pull up as hard as they could. The discs between the vertebral bones in our spine are designed to take compression and loading. This particular maneuver is a significant compression and cushing force on the spine. So as a young man my Father had a significant back problem.

When I was a girl, I remember my Dad doing his back exercises. This was almost 30 years later. He had ongoing problems with his back and was told that the vertebrae had fused themselves due to his earlier injuries. He was given a set of exercises to maintain the strength of his back and trunk muscles, to maintain the mobility of his back and to keep his legs stretched out. For the past 20 or 25 years my Dad has spent 20 minutes a day doing his back exercises. He will miss a day of exercise here or there when he is traveling or extra busy. But for the most part the exercises are his routine just like brushing and flossing his teeth. He also walks for general fitness. He told me that when he realized that this is what he had to do to keep his back doing well there was no question but that he would make this a routine.

My Father is now 79 years old. Since he has been doing his back exercises his back has not been a major problem in his life. He has not sought additional treatment for his back except for when he can con me into treating him when I go home to visit. (He does have one of the crummiest backs I'd seen.) His back problem has not kept him from the activities that he wants to do. He retired from his work as a English/Literature Professor. He writes poetry, short stories, and a newspaper column. He works in his large and wonderful garden (Marden's Garden of Eating). He and my Mother have traveled extensively, lived and taught in China for a year, traveled through New Zealand, Australia, South America. In essence, he has not let his back problem take over his life.

He has had on occasional flare up of back pain during that time. One time about 15 years ago after a long airplane ride from Israel to England his back started to bother him due to prolonged sitting and stayed irritated for several weeks. It is quite remarkable that he has not had more problems with his back over the years. Realistically, he does have to be aware of his back. He can't tolerate much static standing in one position and slow walking, the kind of thing you would do in a museum. He is much more comfortable with sitting or fast walking. This is one kind of back problem, other types of problems don't do well with sitting and prefer to stand.

The point of this story that is important to the people that I work with, who are in an acute phase of a back injury or have a chronic problem, is to realize that there is hope that they can get better. They don't have to let their back problem take over their lives. With a little routine exercise, attention, and good fitness activity, a back problem can get better and stay better. I ask people how they feel if they don't brush their teeth every day? How do they feel if they don't brush for three days? If they didn't brush for a year, would they expect anyone to be able to fix the problems that occur? By this time I get this far, they are making a face at me and start to get the picture. Just like brushing and flossing, a little routine exercise can help your back problem not have a major negative influence on your life. The issue with prevention is that you never know exactly what you have prevented. I am sure that my Dear Old Dad would have had a lot more problems with his back over the years had he not made the commitment to do his exercises and put energy and effort into keeping his back in as good shape as possible. Because he did that, his problem did not shut down his life.

Written by Krista J. Clark


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