A pain in the back

Tuesday, toward the end of the shift, I realized my back was going to seize up. I shifted and there was a quick flicker, such as sometimes happens to the power just before an outage, of tightness across my back. I had not done any lifting or straining that day or the day before. The only thing I can think that might have set it off was a particular way I sat earlier in the day, with a stack of shipping papers in my lap, hunched over leafing through them. But nothing at the time felt strained.

This happens to me sometimes, a back seizure with no obvious cause. Other times the cause is apparent. I frequently will get a debillitating spasm if I lie back and let my hips dangle (off the edge of the bed for instance); the longer I leave myself in that position, the more likely I am to have a great deal of difficulty getting up again, even though at the time it feels like a great relief for small muscles very low in my back.

The actual event that I notice seems to be a reaction to some other physiological event that I cannot detect. My back seems to be stiffening up to protect something against further movement. Whatever the sensitive point is, I never feel it; I just feel muscles that run across my back, from about mid-shoulders down, becoming taut. Even that is a very subtle feeling, easily ignored, but places me in a condition of vulnerability to sudden jolts of spasming pain if I move the wrong way. Even what the wrong motions are is not entirely predictable; a slow, steady stretch in any direction produces no clear signal of danger, until suddenly some muscle goes off like an arching wire and sets off all the rest at the same time.

My back gradually locked down tighter and tighter through Tuesday evening. I went to the grocery store that night and walked around very carefully and avoiding twisting, but I could still feel muscles becoming more tense and ready to spasm. Later in the evening I went to put something in the trash. The trash can has one of those rocking lids you have to bump out of the way, and when I leaned in I leaned more to one side–I was not consciously calculating the move, I was just working on instinct of how my back felt–and I touched of something. My back jolted and I almost fell to my knees.

I don’t feel an excruciating pain. It can be painful, but not to a level that would stop me if I was deliberately working through it to accomplish something. The real bother of it is the way it strikes suddenly and causes muscles to lock up along with it. Only when my whole back is spasming is moving actually painful, which, except for one time that I can recall, is generally only for an instant. So, if you were around to here me yelp or grunt, and you saw me moving around carefully, you might think I was in constant and highly discomfitting pain. Actually I am in constant expectation of pain. Just as you sometimes say “Ow!” when you might have hurt yourself, before the sensation of pain actually registers, so the actual experience of pain is much less than my actions might suggest. It begins to seem like a self-pitying drama to keep exclaiming “Ow! Ouch! Ah! Oh!” when I am not really feeling much pain, but what I feel first is the reflexive action of my back muscles as if responding to a very painful stimulus, and it’s hard not to say “Ow!” when your back reports “Spinal column under assault–damage assesment pending.” An instant later the conclusion is “False alarm, no damage sustained,” but of course that’s after your entire body has gone into paralysis to protect that vital nerve.

I considered taking pain medicine but decided not to. I was not experiencing constant pain, and I still wanted to know where the real problem was before attempting to hide it behind a haze of drugs. When I went to bed, though, I carefully rolled onto one side and started kneading my back. For some, the idea of reaching most of your own back with your own arm may make your back hurt. I can still do it. I found that while my whole back appreciated the massage, none of it would admit to being the source of the problem. On my mid- to lower-back I found large masses of tense muscles that, when kneaded deeply, sent a feeling of relief through my whole torso, intense enough that it was even tinged with nausea. Obviously those muscles had clamped down on my stomach or nerves related to my stomach. Further down, past my back and working into little apertures and groves in my pelvis, I found one spot that, when presses, radiated a sensation almost like tingling, especially off down one leg and up my back. Little bunches in the center of my pelvis will always trigger a slight sensation in my leg and part of my back, a feeling of a light flush as when your legs have gotten cold and they are warming back up.

But even when I had worked my back over pretty well and all the muscles on the surface were sighing contendedly, when I actually tried to move a deeper muscle would still send out the warning signal, so I went to sleep with my back in a state of high alert.

A hot shower on Wednesday morning was, like the massage, appreciated but not effective at addressing the core problem. I didn’t bother attempting the morning situps I do with patchwork frequency. Throughout the day I continued to experience spasms and a general sense of discomfort.

By Thursday morning I was feeling better, and I did a light set of cross-crunches. I try to focus on my lower abdominals to provide core stength and alternative support in the region where my back problems seem to originate. I usually do a mixed set of two slightly different kinds of crossover crunches, but that morning I did a reduced number of the less twisting-intense version. I found that my lower-right side still harbored significant tension, and I thought of the massive, permanently knotted bunch of muscle on my grandfather’s back. I also notice that the way my father moves, and the way he flinches and falters, look exactly like what I feel. There’s no doubt about the genetic nature of my problem.

My back seemed to appreciate the stretching in the exercise, but even with the little I did it was feeling a little fidgety and defensive when I was done. It has continued to improve so that now, on Friday, I still feel some knottiness and I feel as though my posture is hunching out of its normal alignment, but I don’t feel that my whole back is ready to seize up. And it has more cause to be out of whack now then it did before; Thursday I shoved around some extremely heavy boxes. But it is not physical exertion itself that bothers my back; it’s a matter of some sensitive alignment, apparently quite low in my back or even below the backbone proper, which can gradually shift in and out of alignment.

Researching my Dad’s condition, my Mom found a description of a condition which seems to match my various and changing symptoms pretty well. On my mental to-do list I have “Find an osteopathic doctor/physical therapist who understands this condition,” but being young and preoccupied with the present moment I have not quite gotten around to it yet. It would behoove me to find a good therapist before I have a really bad seize up.