Back At It

So, if you’re reading this on the day it came out (July 1), I’m on vacation. Ah, the joys of automation. My family and I are enjoying a much needed rest after a long year of work, speaking, and more.

But as this is a vacation blog, I wanted to take things in a different direction. If you are new to the site, welcome! I normally talk about education - mostly higher education - and how to help fix any number of the problems facing it.

But since this is my vacation, I am going to depart from my normal blog thoughts and foray out into something else that impacts me every day. I’m going to speak to two things I have suffered through, researched almost as much as education transformation, and which are always (and I mean always) on my mind. This week I plan to talk about how I helped heal my back and next week, I’m going to talk about how I lost almost 100 pounds…

Back to back.

I believe my back issues started in 2007. I was carrying something down to our basement and lost my footing, landing squarely on my tailbone. My 275 pound frame hit hard, and I think that was the start of bad things to come.

Within three months, my back “went out” for the very first time. It would do so at least once, often twice a year for the next dozen years.

I did everything I could think of. I heard a lot of (non-back specialist) doctors tell me, “well, you’re 6’5” - of course your back goes out!” I had x-rays showing at least one, likely two ruptured discs. I had a chiropractor take an x-ray and tell me that my spine was actually twisted at the bottom. I had doctor after doctor tell me that this would be my reality forever. A back cannot heal, they would tell me, adding that it can only be in a state of “not inflamed.” All of this lead to PT, back alignments, various firmness on mattresses, and much, much more. In other words, I spent thousands of dollars on remedies and remediation.

But none of it seemed to work.

I was in constant pain. I had to stop playing disc golf (I took 18th at the World’s competition in 2005) and I was always worried about how I moved, walked, and sat. It was awful.

In 2015, I happened upon a tiny little book from a doctor in New Zealand. “Treat Your Own Back” by Robin McKenzie which cost me all of $10! I started going through the book (it’s more like a booklet) immediately and found the premises and philosophies were shared by a few doctors in the U.S. It seems there is a growing movement of doctors who believe a back with spinal or even nerve issues can be healed!

So I took to the web and did what I do best. I searched and researched, starting with medical papers and then seeking practitioners. (Never, ever take advice from a website, no matter how compelling, unless it has some science to back it up.) And I found some stuff. I found a few docs who have a video channel solely dedicated to doing the stretches and back exercises talked about in McKenzie’s book. Ironically, as I was just starting to get my head wrapped around it all, my back went out worse than ever before. Crap.

I was “stuck” at a colleague’s office at Saint Leo University (where I worked at the time as the Chief Innovation Officer). During a meeting, my back got so bad, I could not get off the second floor as it had no elevator. I literally had to crawl down the stairs and into my wife’s car. It took me 2 hours to go about 150 feet.

It was during that bout that I visited a doctor who happened to be a friend. While prescribing me some muscle relaxers and pain killers, I mentioned my height and that this was natural. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said. “You’re 6’5”, so what? That doesn’t mean your back has to go out, not ever.” I was now more determined than ever to figure this out.

Get this style of back brace on Amazon and keep it handy in case you ever need it.

Get this style of back brace on Amazon and keep it handy in case you ever need it.

During that episode, I did do a lot of the new stuff I had learned. I stood and walked as soon as possible, with the help of a brace at first. I used some crutches to start walking sooner rather than later. And I stood as long as possible before ever laying down. It helped rehabilitate quickly, which was good as the pain was worse than ever before!

So…I had to let my back heal to the point that I could start doing the stretches and exercises. But as soon as I was able, I began!

During the coming months, I still babied my back whenever possible, the pain still there all of the time. By the time my family and I moved back to Denver in 2017, I was doing the exercises and stretches regularly. (Yes, it took a solid year!) I’m going to show you my routine, based largely on the book, but also other docs who propose a similar methodology. But of course, before I do, I have to say that I am not a medical doctor and anything you see here should be run by your own doctor first. (Unfortunately, if you don’t have a doctor who buys into the idea that a back is fixable without surgery, it may take a while to find one…)

I begin each morning by doing the following stretches, often as I eat breakfast:

  • The first is pretty simple. Just try to put the middle of your back over your feet and your pelvis out. Use your hands on your hips if you have to and just go a tiny bit at a time. (At first, I could not do this stretch at all.)

  • The second is a simple hamstring exercise. (Did you know your hamstrings are connected up into your lower back?) After having done this for a few years now, I can actually go up to the fifth step on any staircase and hold it for 30-60 seconds, slowing moving my body over my leg.

  • The final morning stretch is the hardest, especially if your back is really bad. It takes time to get here and I always come back to do the first exercise one last time as a balance to it.

During my day, I should also note that I have started using a standing desk. I sit plenty of time in meetings, so I stand whenever I’m at my desk. That has helped a lot as well.

Then, each night, before I go to bed, I do the following stretches. This seems to be where the real magic is:

Top left to right, middle left to right, lower left to right is my order of doing this

Top left to right, middle left to right, lower left to right is my order of doing this

  • The first (top left) is where I start. I only added this one in a year later (not sure I could do it at first) and it made big improvements quickly! Get on your knees like you’re praying and extend your hands forward as far as possible. Hold it for 15-30 seconds.

  • I move into a “Cobra” (for you Yoga-ites). Again, at first you may only be able to go onto your elbows, but try to work up to extending your arms (and back) and holding it for 30 seconds.

  • Then I roll over and bring my knees to my chest. At first I had to do it one knee at a time, but now I do both and I also tuck my head forward. It feels really good.

  • I then get back on my stomach and “roll” my back up and down, slowly for a minute.

  • Then I end the way I started, backing out of the moves for 30 seconds each.

Did It Work?

Well, the jury is still out, but I can tell you this. About 3 months ago, I thought my back was heading out. I did everything to stop it, from lumbar support whenever I sat to my brace. But I kept doing as many of those exercises as I could. And my back never actually went out! Don’t get me wrong, it felt bad! But I was able to stand up and walk, which is hard when my back is truly out.

Today, I feel better than I have felt in years. While my back does still hurt a lot, it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be. I’m playing disc golf again, throwing with a torquing motion that would have seemed impossible even 12 months ago. (Enter a Tiger Woods joke here - if you need one, call my father.) I hope it’s a sign that it is indeed healing - it feels like that is the case.

But I have to end with one important caveat. It’s surely possible that any one thing listed here helped me. Or it could be a combination of three things. I have no idea. I did all of it and honestly I was in such pain that I wasn’t worried about A/B testing the remedies to see which one actually worked.

But there is one other thing that could have contributed a lot here. My next blog will be about my struggles with weight loss for the last 30 years. In the past year, I have lost a major amount of weight. I’ll absolutely share how I did it, but there are some who would say that my back health is largely due to weight loss. It really could be.

But again, it could be any combination of this stuff.

I just felt compelled to share it with anyone out there who might be suffering. It’s my vacation blog because I’m not researching why our students aren’t learning or how our universities are not transforming, but it’s also a vacation blog because most of my readers are off right now. You may be enjoying a summer break, but doing so in pain. If so, you might look into these back stretches and exercises. Who knows? You may come back to school in the Fall a much more flexible, healthy person.

I end every blog with good luck and good learning, but this time, I think I’ll just say, be well my friends.