My Aching Back

Today in Yoga Teacher Training we were talking about our path to yoga and our decision to enroll in Teacher Training.

Although I started doing yoga in the mid 1990s, the genesis of my yoga practice goes much farther back, to some time around 1980.  When I was 12, I started having back pain, and the pain got worse and worse as time went on.  I was miserable. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t sit for long periods of time, and most activity caused back pain.

After at least a year of complaining I finally got my mother, who was inattentive on a good day, to take me to the doctor.  The doctor came in, looked me up and down and said to my mother in a very derisive voice, “Your kid’s back hurts because she’s fat.”  Then he turned to me and said, “If you’d push yourself away from the table and do sit-ups instead of stuffing your face, you’d be fine.”  No x-rays, no exam, just a snap judgement based on my size.

I know, I’ll give you a moment to absorb the horror of this.

Fast forward another year and it’s the fall of 1981, the beginning of 8th grade.  The school does a scoliosis screening.  I’m standing there, topless, touching my toes while the visiting nurse looks at my spine.  I hear a small gasp.  She tells me that it looks like I have scoliosis, and my back is the worst she’s ever seen.  They send me home with a note and the school is so concerned they tell my parents I can’t come back to school until I see a doctor.

A week later, just after my 14th birthday,  I spent twelve hours on an operating table at Northwestern Hospital.  It turns out that the problem wasn’t that I needed to lose weight. The problem was that my spine was so severely twisted my lungs weren’t inflating all the way, and it was so crowded in my misshapen chest cavity  they were worried about my heart being able to function properly.  My spine looked pretty similar to that x-ray on the left at the top of this post.

When I was done, my spine looked like the picture on the right. They sawed apart my fused thoracic vertebrae, rebuilt some of the misshapen vertebrae by taking bone from my hip, and straightened my spine with two steel rods on either side, connected to the vertebrae with a series of over a dozen pins and screws. I was also three inches taller.

I’ve been in pain every single day since then.  Sometimes it’s a low level of pain, sometimes it’s really bad, but it’s there.  Every. Single. Day.  I also haven’t slept more than four consecutive hours since then, except once when I was anesthetized for a different surgery.  That’s right, not a night goes by that I don’t wake up at least once every four hours with back pain or spasms.

Because of the surgery,  my thoracic spine is completely immobilized.  Nothing can twist or bend anywhere on my spine between my shoulders and the bottom of my ribs.  And with every passing year, there is calcification of the spine, stenosis, and disc degeneration due to lack of movement.  It’s just not good for your spine to be immobilized.

What they know now, but didn’t know then, is that leaving those bars in causes a lot of problems.  Nowadays they usually go back in after a year and remove them, leaving the spine to work on its own.

In addition to the problems that leaving the bars in creates for the part of the spine that is immobilized, the lack of movement puts increased pressure on the rest of the spine, causing additional curvatures or damage.  A high percentage of people later have to have follow-up surgery on their lower spine or neck.  A lot of people eventually wind up with broken bars or pins that caused terrible problems like metal poisoning, lung punctures, even death or paralysis. And the rates of disability among those of us who had these bars put in our backs is heart-breakingly high.

Knowing this, I feel extremely lucky that my back is in as good of shape as it is. I fully credit that to yoga.  I am 100% certain that without yoga I’d also be completely disabled by now.

When I started yoga I was in my mid-20s and my spine was deteriorating fast.  My lower back was a mess from the pressure and x-rays were showing the beginning of scoliosis in my lumbar spine.  I was having pain and tingling in my legs. My flexibility and mobility were poor, and the pain was constant and much worse than it is now.  Then one day my chiropractor suggested yoga.

Yoga helped with all of those problems. It reduced my pain, improved my flexibility, and helped slow down the degeneration in the immobilized spine.  And most importantly, it dramatically helped with the parts of my spine that are still able to move. A regular yoga practice has saved the “good” parts of my spine, and helped mitigate the “bad” section.  I still have pain and lack of sleep, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be, or could have been.  And for that, I thank yoga.

When I think of yoga teacher training, I think about some other person struggling with a disabling condition and not knowing what to do. I think about someone else in pain who is told by a healthcare provider that it’s just because they’re fat.  And I think about all of us who want to age well, keep flexible and minimize spinal dysfunction.   Yoga saved me.  It can save them too.  And if I can help one person find the gift of yoga and live a better life, I’ll be privileged to pay my gift forward.

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