Not the happiest update

I’ve been dealing with this back pain by going to physical therapy twice a week. It’s not working. There was an initial improvement that has since sunk into general achiness with occasional eruptions into sharp stabbing pain. I’m about to go in for an appointment with a regular doctor, to maybe arrange some imaging to figure out what’s going on.

That’s my life right now, anyway.


  1. says

    Also, just got back from a PT appointment, where I got a deep tissue massage. Jesus, that was painful. She drilled right down to the muscles that were messed up and gave them a good solid twang. I don’t know if that will help or not.

  2. hillaryrettig1 says

    PZ my partner has back problems, so we switched to a softish foam mattress. Not soft as in “full of peaks and valleys” but soft as in “supports you along every inch of your lumpy body.” I think it helps some and also helps my insomnia. The NYT agrees:

    The other thing we did was get him off the sofa, where he was slouching between the TV and his phone; got him a “dad chair.” (Not a full-on Laz-y-Boy, but simply.) That seems to help, too. (Our brilliant massage guy says that sofas “are the worst.”)

    I won’t lie, tho, what seems to help most (at this early stage), is a monthly pain shot. But perhaps the furniture will help. (And it’s comfortable!)

    Back pain is a drag, sorry you’re dealing with it.

  3. says

    Dear Prof. Myers,
    I truly hope that some one experienced in the medical community can provide some real insight and relief for you.
    Your remark about stupid humans deciding to pile all that strain on a vertical spine is so correct.
    We wish you all the best in your battle against pain..

  4. birgerjohansson says

    I have had compareably mild cases of back pain, I second hillaryrettig1 in that the right kind of mattress and furniture is very important.
    Select the appropriate stuff for your home and never mind the cost. You only have one body.
    Good luck!

  5. anthrosciguy says

    YMMV, but my first wife had a bad back due to it being broken in a car accident. She used to wind up in a hospital in traction for a few days every so often until she was doing research in the Netherlands and her back flared up. There they sent around a physical therapist who taught her stretching exercises which she did every day thereafter, and never had another flareup.

    Bottom line was that in the USA (and mind you, this was in the 1970s) they just didn’t treat the underlying problem so much as react to the immediate manifestations of that problem. The Dutch, however, did.

    Now that may or not have anything to do with your situation, since hers was an injury and she was younger then than you are now.

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    I hope by “imaging” they are going to do an MRI. It can be very helpful for soft tissue, but my doctors always seem reluctant to do it. Maybe it costs money or something.

  7. robro says

    “I don’t know if that will help or not.” But it won’t did hurt.

    Deep tissue torture? Been there, done that. For years, I had neck/shoulder pain from whiplash. I finally saw a deep tissue massage therapist. The pain was so great that I broke out in a sweat. Fortunately it did help.

  8. birgerjohansson says

    Another danger for us of an elderly persuation is the risk of bones becoming porous.
    Freeman Dyson died a few days after a bad fall. And James Lovelock is still recuperating after a fall this spring.
    You have not yet reached this age bracket, but you may consider keeping an eye on the state of your bones.

  9. twoangstroms says

    Sorry that’s still a problem, PZ! I’ve had L5 issues, and what I thought was back pain because I ignored what turned out to be influenza. PT can be slow and it’s hard to see what can be long-term strengthening that can help from future re-injuries; what sometimes helps is being aware of the rate of change (are improvements happening faster than before).

    Though, of course, you’ve got to get to the improvement stage first. Fingers crossed.

  10. Paul K says

    As someone who feels your pain (I couldn’t help saying it), I have had worsening back issues for decades. I’ve now had surgery four times, and each of the first three times, the medicos wanted me to go through several steps before an MRI: exercises, physical therapy, heavier pain killers…. Then, when none of those worked, I’d get n MRI and they’d say, ‘You need surgery, like, right now. Have you had incontinence issues? Do you feel numbness in your groin? Without surgery very soon you could suffer permanent and debilitating nerve damage and loss of various body functions.’ By the fourth time, they took my word for it that the first several steps were not going to help.

    I get why they wanted to try the other things first, and it’s not just money. Back surgery is often not helpful and can even make things worse. (I heard a long report on public radio about this, on my way in for my third surgery.) But in my case, I have both arthritis of the spine and degenerative disk disease (thanks, heredity). For two of the surgeries, my spinal cord was being restricted so badly that they were amazed I wasn’t in even worse pain. Taking a break to rest and cry while crawling to the bathroom in the middle of the night was apparently not enough. They really thought the third time was the charm: several vertebrae fused together, metal mesh meant to be filled in with healing bone, and a titanium superstructure that included eight long bolts that I might use to build a bunk-bed. But my body rejected those bolts, and the bone started to recede away from them, and this didn’t show up until I had yet another MRI. My surgeon winced when he saw the images.

    I say all this because, in my case, all the well-meaning advice just didn’t cut it. Without surgery, I might well be in a wheelchair now. That long report on the radio said that knee replacement and back surgeries were reported to have the least satisfaction among patients. I do use a walker now if I go on a longer walk. Nerve damage means that I just cannot stand unsupported for more than a minute or two. I also take three different pain medications every day. People who find out I’ve had surgery often say something long the lines of, ‘Oh, it’s too bad it didn’t work for you.’ I’m 61 and I use a walker. But I can walk. And, for the past several years, I’ve been stable. I haven’t cried on the way to the bathroom, and that’s a win.

    I wish you luck. Not knowing what the cause is might just be the answer you get from imaging (until MRIs, it was for me), but who knows?

  11. Artor says

    PZ, since you had that ankle trouble earlier, I wonder if that’s what’s aggravating your spine? I know chiropractors get a bad rap, but if you can find a non-woo one, have them check your alignment. Walking wrong can fuck up so many things, you’d be surprised.

  12. Tethys says

    My only advice is Drink at least a quart of liquid over the next few hours. which your therapist should have instructed you to do also.

    Sorry to hear that you are still in constant pain.
    I’ve gone through the myofascial release massage too, which was indeed very painful because my muscles were in such knots that it was restricting circulation and nerve sensations.

    I had to use the breathing that got me through labor contractions while the therapist was working his way through the layers of muscle knots, but it helped immensely to reduce my pain and allow free movement.

  13. wsierichs says

    My sympathies. While I’ve avoided chronic pain so far, I’ve had a couple of painful incidents where I had a few days of living (drifting, more accurately) on industrial-strength pain relievers. I knew that I would recover, but still … My one bout with chronic pain, in my neck, turned out after several weeks to be fixed easily by getting a new, firm pillow to replace my old, soft one. I hope the advice of some other posters about trying some bedding or chairs that are more supportive of the back will yield something useful.

    Also, have you considered offering sacrifices – burning incense – to Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo and the other Olympians. I am becoming increasingly convinced that most of the disasters – natural and manmade – afflicting our country are the result of our failure to worship what everyone knows are the true gods. Until Christians, Muslims, Jews etc turn away from their puny, helpless gods and worship the Olympians, I think it’s likely things will continue to be bad. Perhaps you can set a good example for Christians, etc. If they see you recover, they will recognize the healing power of Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo and the other Olympians (may their names be blessed!). :)

  14. chesapeake says

    @15 arror. Agree. Research has shown that chiropractors can help with back pain. I suspect woo or non woo ones. I got some help from them.

  15. wzrd1 says

    It sounds like the treatment is following the cart before the horse. Imaging first, if it’s older than a year, to assess if there’s progress of the original malady, then perhaps PT if it’s appropriate.
    Oh wait, insurance is looking out for all by liking the cart before the horse, it’s cheaper that way.
    Well, short term, anyway and who makes long term plans in Corporate America?

    A few weeks back, I was walking down a nice, soft set of concrete stairs, stepped down the final step to the landing and both knees completely collapsed. With nothing to hold me up beyond my cane, down I went toward a face plant. I managed to get one arm up, mildly abrading some skin on a forearm and jarring a shoulder with a minor separation, but I avoided striking my head on the concrete and the huge bill replacing the concrete would bring.
    As I writhed about trying to figure out how to get my legs to work again, suddenly a rush of sensation announced that their brief vacation had ended and I managed to anger my already enraged knees more by arriving at the precarious position we refer to as standing and promptly hobbled back to my bed. Still been taking around 6 walks a day or so, need to keep somewhat fit-ish, the weight down and well, mobile. It takes a few days of gutting myself up to wander to the store a quarter mile away – literally uphill in both directions, due to a comical configuration of the geography here to pick up some milk, bread and snacks at the convenience store and am dreading walking to the supermarket two miles away now that the weather is somewhat civilized.
    Not much of a choice though, running down to a couple of weeks of food and am critically low on my medications.
    I’m really going to have to figure out how to get to the medical center for all this deferred maintenance! Not that I think that they’ll have solutions short of butcher knives and chainsaws, given one cataract is now fully “mature”, that AAA ain’t a car club and needs checking, but I have my suspicions that plastic is soon to be added to my body and herniated discs that are pressing on nerves have one solution – high explosives – OK, not really, butcher knives and chainsaws, given the 30% success rate for back surgery…

    But, everyone misses the boat on PT. They’re not Physical Therapists, they’re Physical Terrorists. Trust me, they get a small smile when I’ve said that, but then I still do what maneuvers and exercises that they want done.

    Still, it does help remind us of intelligent design. You know, “Intelligent design, my scrotal contents!”…
    Oh well, at least I found where I put that can of clams, mislaid it under some dried food pouches and it’s hard to make clams and linguini without the clams. Might add some tuna to it as well, for a change of pace and well, for some reason, I’m craving fish. Despite having fish three times last week and this morning with breakfast (tilapia fillet).
    Poop! Down to only spinach for leafy greens, definitely need to hit the stupidmarket now!

    Neighbors moved out, now I have their pets – cockroaches and bedbugs. Time to figure out where I put that mold pouch, knocked the blood suckers down hard the last time, when nothing else was working and I was seriously considering shutting everything down and baking the place…
    Next up: either figure out a parasite for the roaches or to keep neighbors away… Kind of a toss up on that one.

  16. magistramarla says

    I agree with those who are encouraging you to get a proper mattress.
    When I had my first back surgery, we had a fancy $1500 one. I quickly found that I couldn’t sleep on it at all.
    We lucked into a sale at the sleep number store. They were selling off the past year’s model at $695.
    We bought an adjustable base on Amazon, and the bed is now perfect for both of us.
    He keeps his side soft and plushy, I keep mine a bit firmer to support my back.
    The bonus is that the sleep number app gives us an analysis of how well we sleep.
    My physical therapist loves it!

  17. gcstroop says

    Your MRI will probably show typical pathologies for a man your age: probably some spondylosis, perhaps a bulging or herniated disc, and some or a lot of facet joint arthritis, and maybe some spinal stenosis. There may also be a small ligament tear which are really good at creating lots of pain.

    None. I repeat none of that is really a surgical case save for the stenosis, depending on its severity. Depending on the pathology, a nerve block may be in order. Several of them may help, but recent literature suggests some of that may even be more placebo effect than anything.

    Long term, this classifies as chronic low back pain. If you’re not losing motor control of your leg or shitting yourself, then stay off the operating room table. Statistics for surgery on low back pain are abysmal.

    I still think getting your back stronger is the best bet you have and I don’t personally believe all PT’s are created equal in this sense.