Hey, you! Mr. Spry Twenty-Five-Year-Old! Feeling pretty limber these days, eh? Going out and CRUSHING beers and playing campus golf and bending over to pick up entire crates of taco meat. Life's pretty swell for you! Well, I have fun news for you, sport. PAIN IS COMING. So much pain. One day, you will get out of bed, step wrong, and you will fall apart like a fucking Russian hotel facade. You'll be lying on the floor and you'll be thinking God, this really hurts. I may never walk again. Maybe I should kill myself. It happens that fast. Really just a matter of time for you!
It's a hard fact of life that most people, myself included, never worry about health problems until they actually spring up. God knows how much money and pain we could save this nation if we collectively decided to take more preventive health measures, but that's not the way people work. If I don't KNOW what kind of searing, jaw-clenching pain I'm in for, well then I'm gonna go around juggling boulders and shoveling manure as I see fit.
According to the American Chiropractic Association, 80% of Americans will experience back pain in their lives. Having a bad back is so common that it's practically a punchline at this point. It also happens to be a misnomer. What people really mean when they say they have a "bad back" is that they have a bad spine, and having a bad spine sounds wayyyyyyy more serious. Your back is just a hairy, blotchy thing. Your spine is the information superhighway that takes information from your brain and trucks it out to the rest of your body: VERY IMPORTANT. Saying you have a bad back makes people think your suffering is confined to your back when really a spinal disc problem can affect your legs, arms, hands, feet, and even your bowel movements. Fun! It's curious that we've spent the past few years fretting over brain injuries in the NFL, and yet no one blinks when Dez Bryant plays through a "back injury," as if he can just throw some Aspercreme on that shit and everything will be all right.
In general, when your spine is fucked up, it's fucked up for life. The damage caused by a herniated disc is permanent. They can't stuff the crabmeat back into the disc and stitch it up and make you good as new. They either have to give you meds and physical therapy to get rid of the pain, or remove part of the disc, or fuse your vertebrae together in an operation you REALLY do not want (for your upper spine, they cut through your throat; for your lower spine, they cut through your tummy). Any of these methods can help reduce your pain and suffering, but your body will never ever be the way it once was. And the cruel part is that once one part is damaged, other parts of your body must carry the burden and sometimes also get damaged in the process. It's just one long horrible parade of physical deterioration.
That is why I'm here to explain to all you cool kids out there how to prevent the onset of Old Man Disease and take care of your spine. I'm no doctor. I don't even like doctors because doctors are mean and think they know every goddamn thing. But I've fucked up my back enough times and stared at enough ceilings to learn a few things. And you'd best start taking care of yourself right now, before everything goes to shit. You don't want this. I promise you. Here's what you can do to stop it:
1. Don't smoke. In addition to giving you lung cancer, mouth cancer, tongue cancer, impotence, throat cysts, heart disease, stained teeth, and that weird crinkly upper lip thing, cigarettes also murder your back. According to the National Institutes of Health, smoking starves your disc cells of vital nutrients. Then those cells die and your discs fall apart and you want to kill yourself. It's as if they designed cigarettes specifically to cause your body maximum damage. They may as well sell you a box of knives to swallow. Anyway, don't smoke. You probably knew this already, but here's the millionth reason why.
2. You can bend. You can twist. You can lift. But you can't do all three at once. If you bend, twist and lift simultaneously, you're basically taking a crowbar to your body. I know it's fun to reach down to the left and pick up a medicine ball and then hurl it at your frat bro's nuts, but do not do this. AND DEFINITELY DO NOT DO THIS WHILE SMOKING. I know there are fitness freaks out there who will tell you that doing swinging dead lifts with 4,000-pound dumbbells is fantastic for your body. And it probably is, if you have world class technique. But if you don't have world class technique (and you won't), you will die.
3. Don't be fat. Being fat is great because you can eat a lot and you get weird chafing burns in hidden places. But it turns out that enormous beer gut is pulling your body down and forward at all times. Soon, your FUPA will drop all the way to the floor and you'll have to grease it with vegetable oil in order to slide it down the sidewalk. Everyone in America would like to lose weight, and of course there are a million ways to go about it. What works for me (portion control, early dinner, exercise) may not work for you (deliberate jaw wiring). The important thing is that you find some kind of healthy lifestyle routine that you can tolerate. You don't have to like it. You probably won't. You just have to be able to tolerate it enough to say yourself, "Hey, this isn't so bad. I can do this." If you write out a series of rules for yourself and stick to them, you'll probably have a better chance of success.
It also helps to have an outside reason to lose weight. Saying you want to lose weight just to lose weight is rarely enough motivation. Ah, but if you say to yourself, "Hey, I'd like to lose weight so I won't be crippled for life," then you might have a chance. Fatass.
4. Do yoga. It sucks. I won't even pretend to tell you otherwise. It looks ridiculous. The music is goofy. And the stretches are AGONIZING. They look innocuous when you see other people do them, but when you have to reach your arm up to the ceiling for longer than half a second, you feel like you've been manacled in a Venezuelan prison camp. Even the breathing is hard. Ever inhale all the way? God, it's tiring. I don't need all that air. The first couple of times you try yoga, you will yell out FUCK THIS and never want to do it again. It's also really annoying to see ex-gymnasts nearby who can do all those poses effortlessly and can bite their own ankles while you can barely touch your own knees. Those people are awful. Also, yoga is for GIRLS, and girls are so lame!
But... if you stick with it... if you grit your teeth and get the hang of it, it eventually pays off. You find out that you can move parts of your body that you didn't even know you could move before. I have, like, muscles in the back of my shoulders. And they work! I didn't know that before! It's a cliche to talk about strengthening your core, but when that part of your body feels light and compact, you move with much more confidence. I worry about re-injuring my back about half as much as I did before trying yoga.
You can also do it without any of the meditation or mantra stuff. This is the workout I do (link is only to the first 10 minutes; you can buy the DVD at Amazon), but take a class if you feel like you really need to get the technique down. Pilates also works.
5. Wear good shoes. You can tell when a dude has never had any back problems because he'll freely walk around in some dirty-ass flip flops with the heel worn down to nothing and his feet sliding off to the slide with every step. You may as well not even wear shoes at that point. Those things are just foot luggage. Same with any fancy-pants dress shoes made of Peruvian suede with a sole thin enough to jack open a hotel room door. All hurtful. Any shoe that makes you look good will probably end up handicapping you. What you probably need is a pair of ugly-as-sin Merrell sneakers or some other shoe designed for you to walk comfortably around the edge of a fucking volcano. When I used to try on shoes at the store, I would do that thing where you put them on, take three steps, look at your feet in the shoe bench mirror (looking good!), and then that's it. I can't do that anymore. I have to THINK about how the shoe feels. I basically need hover shoes to relieve all body pressure.
6. Don't sit. Sitting takes all the weight of your upper body and places it squarely on your lower back, which is how you end up with both back pain and the dreaded Office Ass (wide, flat, able to display IMAX screenings of Gravity). And that's if you sit CORRECTLY, which most people don't do. Most people sit hunched over a laptop with their face close enough to the screen to lick it. That's like triple sitting damage. Back when we were cavemen or something, we rarely sat. We stood and walked and speared our food and all that, which is why you now see terrible people running around in toe socks and swearing by the paleo diet. They are trying to create a reasonable facsimile of that constantly active lifestyle.
You don't have to go THAT far, because then you'll look like an idiot. But if you work in an office, it might help to stand while you work. You'll feel like a freakshow the first couple of days, but then you get used to it. You don't have to buy some zillion-dollar tread desk or anything. You stack a chair on top of a table and place whatever screen you're using at eye level (I stack a couple books on the chair to raise it up a bit), with the keyboard at a comfortable height for your hands to reach. You'll be amazed at how tiring this is the first time you try it (you'll have the same complaint as any waiter: "I've been on my feet all day"), but you will eventually feel better. You won't leave work feeling like pale death. You'll feel more productive. And hey, Donald Rumsfeld worked standing and everyone loved him!
7. If you have a problem, make sure your doctor and/or physical therapist doesn't suck. When you're 24, you're basically picking a doctor out of a hat. Are they nearby? Are they open? Does my company's garbage insurance cover 10% of the cost? I'M ALL YOURS, DR. NICK. Frankly, it can be hard to tell if a doctor is fucking terrible because most of them SOUND like they know what they're doing. Just remember that you're entrusting this person with your spinal cord. In some cases, you will even be allowing this person to drill into your body next to that cord in an attempt to heal it.
So do the best research you can. Find the Yelp! of doctors ("They won't take my Discover card!"), ask friends for recommendations, find out what school your doctor went to. Make sure he's not a knee guy moonlighting with your sciatic nerve. If you see a chiropractor (I don't go to them), make sure he won't roll you over a metal garbage can.
And if you suspect that you HATE your doctor, have the courage to seek out a second opinion, even when that means trudging to a whole other office and doing even more goddamn paperwork and spending money you almost certainly don't have. This is a healthcare system that goes to great lengths to discourage you from seeking options (the best doctors often opt out to the network entirely, which makes them even more expensive), but do it if you can.
The doctor you see will probably tell you to get physical therapy. Again, try to do your homework. Make sure your PT has a recent master's or a doctorate and that they're up-to-date on new techniques, like trigger point dry needling (the pain lets you know it's working!). Don't go to some ancient joint that will hook you up to a stim machine for twenty minutes and then send you on your way. This shit is constantly evolving and the best PTs incorporate those newer methods as they turn up. And if they give you exercises for homework, keep up with it. Even when they tell you those exercises are for life. I remember not being able to comprehend that the first time I heard it. "Like, I have do this forever?"
And usually, you do. Such is the burden of walking around inside a human body. It's not a perfect thing and it gets less perfect as time goes by. But if you put in a relatively small amount of effort now, you may never have to learn how imperfect it can get.
Drew Magary writes for Deadspin and Gawker. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter @drewmagary and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also buy Drew's book, Someone Could Get Hurt, through his homepage.
Art by Jim Cooke