Fun times

I did something yesterday to throw my back out — I’m 63, which means I probably did something radical like sneeze. Anyway, I’m sitting here trying not to move a millimeter that way or twist this other way, which would send spasms rippling up my spine, and I think I’ll be immobile most of the day…except that I’m about to get up and walk to the medicine cabinet for some painkillers, trying not to scream or die, and then come back to my chair and just stop for a while.

Fortunately, my self-imposed agenda for the day is to hammer out a couple of syllabi and get them posted to our CMS, Canvas. It’s just fingers that need to work, and so far they seem OK. Classes start up again in 9 days.

Time to gently ease myself out of this chair and gingerly shuffle to the next room. If you hear a shrieking howl out of the upper midwest, I didn’t make it.


  1. mastmaker says

    Wish you a speedy recovery, PZ.

    Rare as they’re for me, they are the worst hell when they occur. Hope you’re not as absentminded as me and aggravate it every few hours to keep the pain going for days on end!

  2. davidc1 says

    Yeah ,sneezing is a bastard when you past 60 .,i blame evilution for forcing us to walk on two feet .

  3. harryblack says

    Hell, it screwed me over at 30. I have felt your pain and hope you get better soon!
    Our intelligent designer did not put his full attention into designing spines did he?

  4. hemidactylus says

    Had a stupid squatting incident almost 30 years ago with various ups and downs ever since.

    My downfall is side sleeping. I find that in many of the less severe cases lying in bed with my knees bent (feet flat) for a while then slowly straightening them…bent knees…straightening repeated multiple times helps ease the pain. Initially standing and walking sometimes sucks, bent sideways a bit oddly, but walking around starts feeling much better. I’m worst in morning.

    Haven’t had one of those “Holy shit” standing from seated position twinges or spasms that mean weeks of depressing pain for a while [crosses fingers].

    Hope it gets better. I truly feel your pain.

  5. DonDueed says

    I’ve done PT for back pain (following disk surgery). I still get episodes of pain, which can be brought on by almost anything. Yet sometimes things that you’d expect to trigger it, won’t — like digging a stump out of my yard last summer.

    One exercise that helps me is “unloading”. You brace your arms on a countertop or sturdy table, then take your whole body weight on your arms instead of your feet. Basically let your spine hang from your shoulders. Hold for a few seconds. Repeat two or three times. I often feel a small pop or two as the spine stretches, which is actually quite pleasant. YMMV, of course.

  6. anchor says

    I’ll bet you did a little scoot on the ice as you admired the ice whiskers, as when one or both heels suddenly shoot out from under your center of mass and you reflexively recover your balance just in time to avoid crashing to the ground. It often doesn’t command further attention until the next morning when one wakes up crippled by pain. Its happened to me often enough that I avoid attempting to negotiate icy pavement if at all possible. One little slip means agony for weeks.

  7. ajbjasus says

    From years of dealing with this, which reached a nadir with morphine and Valium my take always are

    Get a proper diagnosi
    No need to say to you, but avoid chiropractors and osteopaths, a back specialist physio plus mri are best.
    Sitting and driving are the worst things
    Mackenzie exercises – do the ones you can now, and then regularly especially when you are okay – prevention is better than cure
    Walking is brilliant for it
    Pilates !

    Good luck

  8. bcw bcw says

    Don’t sit for extended times. It may help to use a footrest when sitting. Get up and move around frequently.
    It may help to stretch your hamstrings. Grabbing the top of a doorframe and pulling with your arms may help.
    (Variant on @5’s suggestion.)
    Since the issue is likely muscle spasm what helps can be weird. Twisting stretches may actually help or not.
    Heat is good idea because you want the muscles to relax, cold is likely a bad idea for the same reason.

  9. says

    A few years ago I hurt my back fumbling around in the dark trying unsuccessfully to turn my water off at the meter to fix a leaky shower. The next morning and a couple of paracetamol later I fixed the offending leak and spent the day putting up with gradually worsening back pain. I couldn’t get anything stronger to stop it and by evening it had worked its way under my shoulder an around to my chest so it was off to A&E hoping they would give me some codeine. No luck, they wouldn’t believe it was a sore back and took me in straight away and shoved a catheter in my arm. Two ECGs later they decided I wasn’t having a heart attack and proceeded to ultrasounds and CT scans. Again they found nothing. Meanwhile the pain was so bad, (thats right no pain relief) that I couldn’t breathe properly, setting off the alarms on the blood oxygen monitor every few minutes at which point a nurse would yell at me to breathe. Eventually they solved that problem by putting me on oxygen. Finally at about 2am they decided I was right about my back and gave me morphine. Bliss and a decent sleep till 7am when they kicked me out and sent me home. The irony was I was scheduled to return to the hospital two days later for a cardiac stress test and gamma scan which thanks to some crafty use of steroids to put extra stress on my normally relaxed heart I aced with flying colours. There is a moral however back pain is not always back pain. It can be a sign of heart troubles so don’t ignore it if it isn’t getting better.

  10. Artor says

    I’ve had occasional back problems since I was 25. It’s been a few years since I last threw it out, but it’s times like this I bet you’re feeling envious of invertebrates, PZ.

  11. Tethys says

    Ugh, spine pain is the worst. Since it’s connected to everything there is no way to move without triggering the spasms.

    Heat packs and anti-imflammatories help a bit. Legs up on a chair while lying flat can help stretch and ease the low back. If you have a local health food store, topical CBD oil is an effective anti-spasmodic. (Make sure you wash your hands well after applying it. Accidentally rubbing it on an eyelid or other very sensitive area of the body is not pleasant.)

    Sitting at a desk every day is terrible for your back and neck.

  12. Don F says

    The human back is very strong evidence against “Intelligent Design”. Even if it were designed, the back doesn’t show any sign of intelligence behind it. I threw mine out once by reaching for a small throw pillow and I was out for a couple of weeks. Good pain meds, though.
    I wish a speedy recovery for you, PeeZed!

  13. says

    If you can’t sit but want to take the weight off, try kneeling on a chair. Put a cushion on an ottoman or something low, and kneel one leg at a time. It also works if you’re in front of a computer, and it’s easy to get up.

    When my back feels its worst and I need to sleep, I take a cotton towel or small blanket and roll it up, about 8-10 cm around. I place it under me, in the soft space between the ribcage and pelvis to keep the spine in line.

  14. says

    Unlike far too many in DC of late, at least PZ has a spine.

    My advice: Don’t jump out of any perfectly good airplanes. Especially at night wearing a full load of gear.

  15. wzrd1 says

    I get two flavors of misery, depending upon what I’ve passed off in my lumbar spine.
    The familiar high voltage feeling down one cheek to the back of my calf, the higher intensity magma flow down both cheeks, down the calves to the balls of both feet being one type.
    The other, typically triggered by a twisting misstep results in a nausea inducing pain, one which makes an exposed nerve in a tooth seem pleasant.
    Still, the prize winner was one where I felt as though a 3″ diameter spear was impaling me through the solar plexus. Blocked sphincter of Oddi. Once the stone passed into the stomach, the agony was over – with a residual pain that lasted f few days. Thankfully, no other stones were present.

    Still, I hope that you don’t mind my putting you on the full body transplant list, right behind my wife and myself.
    Although, I am scratching my head as to why transplanting my brain was scheduled as minor surgery…

  16. says

    It’s just fingers that need to work, and so far they seem OK.

    speaking of which, anyone know of any good treatment/advice for “Repetitive Stress Injuries” from computer use?

    too much superstition around it.

    is there no way to recover from it?

    i did talk to my doctor and…i don’t even know. in limbo, been waiting months on some list to get a nerve conduction scan…and i don’t even know how that will help.

  17. unclefrogy says

    I have been subject to a sore back for years luckily it is intermittent. I am also a slow learner when it comes to my body, exercise and back pain . I am not very disciplined either. I usually know what I did often it is working leaning over just a little maybe half way for too long or lifting something wrong in a hurry just this once . I have learned finally to wear a back brace more regularly though not all every time I am working .
    During this pandemic I have not been working at the usual things but sitting and keyboarding mostly in comparison, watching the stupid show out of Washington and fighting the crazies.
    I noticed I was feeling crappy and would “soon” be able to get back to regular work so I started waking up with 15 minutes of serious stretching including twisting first and noticed I felt better and my balance (body not necessarily my mind) was much better then I started with some light strengthening exercises with some weights. i hate exercise but this new pattern feels good and I hope I can keep it up my back feels much better most of the time as well.

  18. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Brian @17, I’ve had problems with CTS (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) for over decade. Mine is in in my left wrist, If yours is the same, changing from qwerty keyboard to a Dvorák keyboard could be a big help. The qwerty keyboard was designed to slow down typists to prevent key jams. The most used letters are in the left hand. I can sign my name with just my left hand.
    The nerve conduction scan, from my neurologist, consisted of electrodes attached to my upper arm and my fingers. Then an electric pulse is applied and the speed recorded. I started out as borderline for surgery, but went below the threshold. Softer keyboards helped. The keyboards on laptops and my Apple magic keyboard are hard keyboards. Every keystroke hits something solid unless a very gentle touch is applied. Squeezing a soft 3″ ball several times a day can help. Also a wrist elevator to keep your hand horizontal while you type. Soft wrist braces may also help.
    I still have residual tingling in the palm from my CTS.

  19. says

    @Brian Pansky 17
    In addition to what you already know, if you can stop until the pain stops and then start until you don’t hurt yourself. If you can’t stop reduce your pace until the pain subsides enough to figure out how you can do something differently.
    This is based on having to replace a piece of equipment with myself for a while. I had to slow myself down on a general level because I was hurting myself by pushing myself too hard too.
    I had just figured out a new routine and the daily wear was no longer accumulating when they fixed it.

    In my case some pain went away and some stayed. The part due to diabetic neuropathy is better too. I’m still struggling with the reasons.

  20. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Brian, @17, I forgot to mention that voice recognition software has come a long way since my first introduction in the mid ‘aughts. You still have to edit the final copy though.

  21. DonDueed says

    I think it’s really cool that the commentariat has offered so many constructive suggestions. Hope they help, PZ and Brian!

  22. William George says

    Don’t know if this will help but I deal with my sciatica by laying down and crying myself to sleep.

  23. says

    Back in the day when my back used to go “out”, I’d lie face down on the floor near a door frame and get my partner to massage it with her feet and body weight. After a few loud pops things would start to settle down. Nowadays my back doesn’t bunk off very often, probably because I am much more careful about using brute strength instead of leverage. Oh and I bicycle a lot. Partner has an exercise bike indoors.

  24. siwuloki says

    Been there, many times. One thing that greatly reduced the frequency was not sitting with a wallet in my back pocket.

  25. brightmoon says

    I’ve been doing yoga and ballet since my teens . I stopped due to a back injury caused by an ex about 30 years ago. I started back very gradually with just some releves ( toe raises ) and Demi pliés ( slight knee bends ) about 2 years ago. Real beginner stuff. My back feels so much better and my knees, ankles, and hips stopped hurting . Advil for pain and warm showers for cramps when I need it because I’ve occasionally overdone it . Yoga helps center your body weight so that you’re more aware when you’re off balance . It’s not all just woo

  26. prfesser says

    I had L4-L5 lumbar fusion about five years ago which involves 6-12 months of wearing a brace and not picking up anything heavier than a gallon of milk, though I was able to go back to teaching after about two weeks or so (walker and slow progress). The surgery helped for a while but there was more deterioration and more pain elsewhere. Currently I go to a pain management center, and the epidurals provide relief (two months or more after each epidural).

    If it continues I’d see if your primary care MD will refer you to a pain management clinic. The epidurals themselves are a bit unpleasant, but it’s momentary. It took a couple of weeks for the first injection to help, but the relief since then has been tremendous.

    Definitely pain management before considering surgery.

  27. says

    My sympathies. I’ll refrain from giving medical advice, you just have my sympathies. It’s also obviously the worst time for needing medical help.

  28. Daniel Storms says

    I blew out a disc once by sneezing–75% ejected and pressing on the spine. Worst damn pain I ever experienced, including two MIs and a broken collar bone. Had to have the EMTs carry me out of the house in a stretcher. Discectomy and fusion went well but still have lumbar pain, not uncommon. I feel for you, believe me.

    In a testimony to healthcare, the local hospital forgot to include my Lantus insulin for 4 days running and wondered why my blood sugar was so high. Ended up in ICU, but on review, the hospital decided that my care met normal standards.

  29. christoph says

    Just something to look into, but it might not be your spine. It could be bursitis in your hip joint-sometimes the pain radiates out so much that it feels like it’s in your back, but when it fades a little it’s clearly originating in the hip joint. Some good news-if anti inflammatory meds like Ibuprofen or Advil don’t work, a cortisone injection usually does.

  30. Hairhead, Still Learning at 59 says

    To add to the suggestions. First:

    Get a bone-density scan of your spine.


    My story. Age 35. Bending over to put a CD in the player (Best of Steely Dan) I hear a “pop” from my back and collapse in my chair in agony. Long story short, 17 years of recurrent agonizing pain (how agonizing? Walking across a highway, roaring semi few hundred yards away. Spasm, pain hits, fall directly to the ground. Even with adrenaline coursing through veins, cannot stand, have to roll myself to side of road). Worst part of the pain was that I could not identify what would set off pain episodes, which could last as little as two days, or as long as three weeks.

    Finally, one morning pain was bad enough doctor thought I was having a heart attack. At the hospital, hooked up to EKG from 9am – 2pm, while nurses trooped in and out sucking vials of blood from me, as well as other tests.. At 2pm a cheery doctor comes up, takes the EKG sensors off and says, “You have not had a heart attack, you are not having a heart attack, and you are not going to have a heart attack.(Pause) But I would like to show you your back X-ray.”

    Cut to the chase. In the X-ray, I could literally see my vertebrae disintegrating. Turns out I had early-onset osteoporosis. I had back pain because my vertebrae were disintegrating, and there was no particular movement or pressure that would set it off. When a (tiny) portion of the bone disintegrates, the muscle fibre attached to it snaps back, resulting in pain. I was put on Alendronate (brand name Fosamax) which old people with the condition use to keep their bones from flying to flinders. Wonder of modern medicine, it WORKED! I haven’t had a back attack in 10 years.

    So I snarl at my doctors and ask them why they didn’t check for it before. Their answer: “We never look at a healthy, physically-active male under 70 for osteoporosis.” (Between back attacks, I would exercise vigourously: weights, running, etc. to get back into shape after bed rest.) Further investigation found that it is genetic: my mother had early-osteo, and my older brother too, but not my two younger brothers.)

    To repeat: Get yourself a bone density scan! If it is osteoporosis, fhe drug treatment is both cheap and effective, and without side effects.