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How’s Your Back?

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Surprise. This question is not just common amongst aging men any more. It seems to have become increasingly common amongst a group most people wouldn’t think of—thirty-something-year-old women. Yes, young women—sidelined by back pain—walking around clutching their lower backs, searching to find relief from anything or anyone. I know this well because I am one of them.


I’ve had a sore back on and off for the past six years, since I was thirty. I was involved in a car accident two days before my sister’s wedding. In fact, I was on the way to her so-called bachelorette party when the accident happened.


The back mavens and car accident veterans say that I suffered the most not because of the accident itself, but because I saw it coming. “Oh, you saw the accident about to happen, that’s why you’re in so much pain.” Apparently if you see the accident coming, then you brace and your whole body tenses up, thus exacerbating any injury that might occur.


Having said that, I did recover. I tried a bit of physical therapy to get the initial back situation under control and then proceeded to become a dedicated yogi warrior. For four years I saluted the sun, breathed like a lion, forgot about the pose, focused on the journey, and twisted and bent my way to healthiness (and some nice muscles to boot). One of my dedicated yogi buddies even calls me “Gumby.” I wear my bendiness as a badge of honor. My back was a little bitchy and whiny every now and again, but that was nothing compared to what it had in store for me.


I woke up one morning after being on vacation for a week at a health spa with a dull, stabbing pain my lower back. I’d had a full week of hiking, yoga, dancing, kickboxing, weight training, breathing, eating healthy, and generally detoxing the city life out of me. The pain in my lower back had been throbbing a bit while I was at the spa, but it continued to grow and grow until I became alarmed. My back would “catch” or “pinch” at the weirdest times, causing me to draw my breath in sharply, stop dead in my tracks, and grab for my lower back. I couldn’t sleep at night because I was constantly flipping my legs back and forth trying to get comfortable. I was in pain more than I wasn’t during the day and it was really starting to freak me out.


Initially, I thought I would just pass Go, collect $200, and head straight to the orthopedic surgeon. What the hell was I thinking? I’ve been in a healthcare system long enough to know that I can’t just go to a specialist. I have to see my primary doctor first. So, I went. She ordered up some x-rays. Here’s a snippet from the voice mail she left me: “Well, Dayna, you have a very worn-out looking, frayed disc between your L5 and S1. What you have is consistent with degenerative disc disease. We’re recommending physical therapy.” And there it was.


As you can imagine, I spent the next few days on the Web. Where exactly was my L5 and S1? I learned that it’s the sweet spot—the place responsible for my bendy badge of honor. Cruel joke that it was, it was also the place causing me the absolute most annoying pain. To try to find your L5 and S1 yourself, just reach around to your lower back and start pressing about an inch above the tail bone. If you suffer from lower back pain, this will be the spot that feels like a big, fat bruise.


As I was reading on the Web, I found a few ideas for treating degenerative disc disease. Basic treatment includes physical therapy, some massage, and antidepressants. Um, huh? Antidepressants? What did that have to do with anything? Apparently if the actual pain isn’t enough, depression usually follows. I didn’t really understand this concept at all until I found myself lying in bed one night starting to get really scared and upset. It came out of nowhere. Questions were running through my head: “Will I be able to hold my children if I have any?” “Will I ever dance again?” “Will I be able to get out of bed without holding on to my lower back for dear life?” “Will I know what it’s like to live a day without this constant aching pain in my back?” “What’s wrong with me—I’m too young for this.” I found myself becoming upset and worried, which I knew wasn’t doing anything productive for me.


That said, I bucked up, pointed my sights on optimism, and headed into physical therapy. I met Larry (not his real name) who had been recommended to me by my doctor. At first I was a fan of Larry’s style. He was a bit aggro—yelling at me if I was slouching, sitting strangely, or carrying my bag wrong. I sort of liked the cranky directness of his “care.” My first few sessions were about the basics of core strengthening. I mastered them on the table and then tried to practice them in the gym and throughout the day. I noticed that the pain wasn’t as acute as it had been and that my sleep had improved. However, I would still get the “pinch” at random moments and my healing seemed to pique and then plateau, still leaving me with constant, dull pain. To top it off, I was getting really bored during my physical therapy sessions and feeling a bit unloved. We’d start with Larry poking at my spine a bit, do some core strengthening breathing, and then move out to the weights, where he mostly ignored me. It was boring and monotonous. I couldn’t see an end in sight and I was becoming disenchanted with the process. Right or wrong, I bagged it.


During this time, I told my older brother, a personal injury lawyer in Texas, about my back pain. Immediately he said (with a slight Texas drawl), “Send me your reports.” He sent the read out of my x-ray to a friend of his who is a “Network” chiropractor, a branch of chiropractics that’s a little bit “woo woo” on the surface. In fact, it’s a bit “woo woo” in practice as well.


Network Spinal Analysis (its official name) or NSA, combines breathing and “awakening” of different places of your spine. This is my description, not the real one, but you get the picture. In my first session I was asked a ton of questions: “Was there trauma when your mother was in childbirth with you?”, “Were you ever abused?”, “Do you drink or use drugs?”, and “Are your back issues related to a traumatic injury?” When the evaluation was done, I laid face down on a massage table. The doctor proceeded to cross and uncross my legs, bend them up towards my rear end, and feel up and down my spine. Then he applied a magic “touch” in about three places. (And it is literally a touch.) The magic touch is when the Doc comes over and applies a quick, light, poke in a certain place on your body. “That’s IT?” is the first thing that popped into my mind. The theory is that the touch is awakening that area. And then you’re done. No snap, no crackle, no pop. Just a few gentle pokes and you’re done.


I was told that this program is designed to awaken the spine, uncoil it from the mess it’s managed to get itself into, and then awaken things in you that you never knew existed. It has supposedly changed people’s lives. Curing depression, back pain, stuck-in-a-rut-itis, and stress are some of the claims to fame for this type of care. But does it work? I’m not entirely sure yet, since I’m currently in week three of an eight-week program.


But here’s what I do know. I go to my NSA docs (who shall remain nameless) in San Francisco three times a week. I’m just one of many folks that truck in and out of their office on a regular basis. When people are coming for “entrainments,” as the sessions are called, this place is as busy as a Starbucks on Saturday morning after workout time. When I go in during the week, I’m in “group,” meaning I take my clipboard from the front desk and walk into a room that has four tables in it. The other three tables have people laying face down on them. The Doc walks around, checks the clipboard, lays a gentle hand on you, and then gets to work with the crossing and bending of the legs and the magic touches. He hums along to the spiritual music and goes back and forth between people who are in various stages of care. Some are engaged in some fairly funky breathing exercises; some are just quietly lying there, like me. When you’re done, you pick up your clipboard, go back outside, and the next person goes in and takes your place on the table.


For now, my back pain has diminished a bit and shifted around. I’ve chosen not to execute my “chuck it all plan” which includes buying a house in the country, selling off some of my material possessions, taking a multitude of dance classes, and writing articles and books for a living. Nor have I found true love in my life or decided to love the entire world, no matter how bunged up it is, with complete abandon. I have, however, made a decision to take a quantum leap of faith and open my mind to this strange, holistic, “woo woo” type of care. Perhaps it’s bunk, but with all the people going in and out of this place, I have to believe these practitioners are on to something. And because my insurance is covering quite a bit of this, I can afford to give it a go. Perhaps I’ll soon be writing the ending to the most unbelievable success story you’ve ever heard.


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