By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Three years ago I wrote Treating Back Pain Without Drugs. Since that essay keeps getting hits and I’ve learned a few more things about dealing with pain without using drugs, I thought I’d write an update. I’ve had chronic back problems for years, but I’ve been mostly pain free without using drugs. I have spinal stenosis, which keeps me from laying flat or standing for long periods. If I aggravate the spinal stenosis it tends to spread to the muscles that causes back pain.
I have three kinds of symptoms which I control without drugs:
- inflammation – tends to magnify other symptoms
- neuropathy – feet, legs, mostly on right side
- muscle pain – lower back, hips, sometimes legs
I went through years of trying to deal with back pain using drugs. They’d cover up symptoms, but I never could escape the pains entirely. I kept trying other ways to fight pain. I’d tried different sleep positions, a better bed, and using pillows between my legs or under my knees to align myself symmetrically while I slept. Nothing helped for long. I’d always wake up feeling worse. I finally concluded it was lying in bed that was causing the problem, so I started sleeping in a recliner. That made a huge difference! I still took pain pills and anti-inflammatory drugs, but sleeping in the chair seemed to fix most of my problem. It was around this time I began going to a back specialist. I thought I was having hip problems, because most of my pain was in my hips, with numbness down my legs. They did a MRI and said my hip was fine, but I had spinal stenosis due to arthritis and some bad discs. I was sent to a pain management specialist; he prescribed physical therapy. That was the second major remedy I found!
I’ve since learned that if I do my physical therapy exercises daily I can keep the pain down to almost nothing without drugs. Mostly I’d have numbness in my feet. If I skipped a day of exercising I could feel the muscles tightening up in my lower back. If I skipped another day or two, I start having a fair amount of lower back pain, spreading into my right hip. If I allow the pain to gain a foothold, I’m back on drugs, and I’ll have a hard time moving around, especially getting up and down from a chair.
One of the annoying things about the spinal stenosis is I could no longer walk for exercise. I eventually found Z-Coil shoes, which have big ugly springs in the heel that act like a shock-absorber for my spine. Without the Z-Coil shoes, I’d frequently feel like I was stepping in a hole or slipping on ice, which I think was caused by pinching my nerve stepping too hard. With the Z-Coil shoes I could walk about a mile without causing too much numbness. But, the more I walked, the fatter my feet felt. If I keep pushing it, the numbness would work up my right leg. If things got really bad, I’d have numbness in my left leg.
Between sleeping in a chair, doing physical therapy exercises and wearing the Z-Coil shoes, I felt pretty good most of the time as long as I didn’t stand or walk too long. My feet remained somewhat numb all the time.
Unfortunately, the anti-inflammatory pills I was prescribed started bothering my stomach, so I stopped taking them. It was then I started reading about anti-inflammatory diets. This really helped with the numbness. Last summer, I started on a plant based diet to lower my cholesterol. I lost 25 pounds. I don’t know if it was losing the weight or the anti-inflammatory properties of the diet, but I was able to increase my walking to 2 miles at a stretch, and the numbness in my feet practically disappeared. This made me very happy. Later on, I was feeling so good that I started cheating on my diet, having some fun foods again, and on some days skipped my physical therapy. I didn’t gain weight, but I started having trouble walking again. The numbness returned. I had to stop walking for exercise for a couple weeks. I then went back to faithfully doing my physical therapy and sticking to the plant based diet, and I’m now able to walk two miles in the morning again, and the numbness is almost gone.
I’m amazed by how much the plant based diet helps. It drastically lowered my bad cholesterol, let me lose 25 pounds in three months, and significantly reduced inflammation. It’s hard to believe some food can be so inflammatory, but going on and off the plant based diet has let me feel the inflammation come and go. I think the anti-inflammatory aspects of the diet were more important than losing the weight in helping with my back.
Along the way, I’ve discovered the B12 helps neuropathy. I take either sublingual tablets or get shots.
I’ve also had a few incidents of my upper back going out, giving me neck pain, with the pain running down my left arm. I’ve also discovered upper-body exercises will solve this problem too.
In all cases I’d recommend anyone wanting to exercise instead of using drugs see their doctor about which exercises are appropriate and safe for their condition. My spinal stenosis isn’t cured. I’ve just figured out how not to aggravate it. I feel like I’ve learned to walk a razor’s edge, and if I’m careful, I can avoid pain and drugs.
I’ve been catching episodes of Classical Stretch on PBS with Miranda Esmonde-White. I believe her philosophy and exercises might be an appropriate tool too. Miranda’s stretches are like my physical therapy exercises, but she has vastly more kinds of stretches, which would systematically work the entire body.
Essay 981 – Table of Contents