People ask me how come I no longer need a cane to walk.  I have five bad discs in my lower spine, and while cleaning my truck recently I stumbled on my two canes and just realized I haven’t used them for  almost two years. No, I didn’t get the surgery.  

So I thought I would share what worked for me and what didn’t. 

Architects and engineers alike suffer from bad back,  so I hope the subject is at least somehow relevant to the building enclosures…

1. Movement and rest mechanics. I have 25 years of hernia experience, and observing my wife who just had her very first onset, I discovered how differently we move and rest. There is much confusion among professionals and general public, and therefore we are exposed to much misinformation. Eight years ago, I discovered a book titled: “Treat Your Own Back” by a New Zealand doctor named Robin A. McKenzie. It explained a lot and clarified a lot of this confusion. I discovered that my doctors and therapists had it all wrong before. I got some foam pillows to keep my spine properly curved when I am at rest, and I stopped bending my back the wrong way. When I feel my back is tired and ready to go, I lay supine on my tailgate or any available table with my legs hanging down for a couple of minutes. I also use my IKEA Poang chair in a way that was probably never envisioned by its designers – in reverse.  If I happen to be in a place where no convenient elevated flat surface is available (i.e. airport terminals) I find a relatively clean carpet spot, lay on my belly and raise my feet up behind me. A place like that and preferably located near an electric outlet allowing me to plug my laptop and lay for several hours saved my back at many layovers.

save back

2.Bad and ineffective exercise. The worst kind of exercise is exemplified by pulling on your shoes or boots in the morning. I was told by one doctor that this one seemingly innocent act sends more patients into his room than all others combined.buty

Instead, I use a long handle shoe horn (I think I got them from IKEA). Buy several of them and place them everywhere you may pull on your boots.  They tend to break easily, so get some spares. How about socks? Pull on your socks only when laying on the bed, with your back down, so at least you have some control over the stretching, and put less tension on the back. Exercise your core muscles in horizontal position whenever possible. I tried the inversion table, didn’t work for me, the problem is the same as the general challenge in the morning: relaxing the discs makes them more vulnerable to injury. Belly exercises and forward stretching which were originally prescribed to me by my doctors and therapists are not good either. They stretch the back, which should be compressed instead. Get the book and you’ll understand.


3. Lifting. If you need to lift something or to work on a plumbing, do it in the afternoon, when your discs are already compressed. Lifting a lot? Get a hydraulic liftgate for your truck.  I wished I got one years ago. And, of course, lift with your knees, and not with your back, but you must already know that, because it’s the first thing everyone taught me. Kneeing as opposed to squatting becomes a habit and places undue stress on pants and knees. After years of trial and error, I use only military pants with internal knee pad pockets. Mouse pads make good knee pads.

4. Good exercise, preferably while doing something else (i.e. reading or browsing Internet), so it becomes a habit. When reading, I lay on my belly and raise my legs in series, training my core muscles of the lower back. When standing, I kick back (in a horse-like manner), so don’t approach me from behind…


5. Office Chair. Wherever I sit for a prolonged time: in my office or in the workshop, I sit on a saddle seat, which allows me to sit like on a horse back or a motorcycle: with both my legs down, which is considered the most ergonomic posture. I tried first an exercise ball on casters, then a modified exercise ball, and eventually I ended up modifying inexpensive (~$40) saddle stools purchased from different sources.  Please note: All those inexpensive saddle stools won’t fit a person taller than the average Asian and Latino who produced them.  In order to modify them to fit my 6′ frame, I had to extend their stems. I tried first welding steel cans below the seat, but unfortunately they tend to crush and compress over time. I figured out I can extend the bottom section with two pipe stubs. The diameter of the top portion of the bottom conical section is  1.88″ in many of these stools, so I grabbed my caliper and went to a junkyard to look for fitting pipes. I found two fitting sizes: one comes from an electric conduit (1-1/2″ aluminum EMT), and the other one is an automotive tailpipe. Below is the picture of an extension of a stool I got from Northern Tool:modification

Surprisingly much time is spent in a car. Therefore, it’s a good investment to get a good seat in your car or modify one.  Those which allow for tilting of the bottom seat and have an adjustable lumbar support are the best. I found that my Toyota Tundra had the best seats. In my Dodge truck, which had a cheap stock driver seat, I added a horizontal piece of foam in the back of my seat to support my lumbar (because I was too cheap to get another one), and it turned out to be a very simple operation and with a good result. Btw.  I tend to overdo everything, so before I started I read Automotive Upholstery Handbook, and it turned out to be a good read. Recently, I started flying a general aviation plane and rediscovered what a difference a bad seat makes. Half an hour of flight cramped in an ordinary, unheated seat, sets my sciatic nerve in flames.

6.Heated Seats. It may sound silly in hot places like South Florida, but the difference is huge! It relaxed my back, allowing to drive for 14 hours in a row for the first time in my life. None of my trucks had one, so I bought three $40 sets from Amazon, and cheated with installation by simply squeezing them between the foam and covers, so I  the whole installation took approximately one hour, including having a beer or two.

7.  Drugs. Every now and then I feel the approaching weather in my bones. You know the feeling. It’s a good time to swallow some anti-inflammatory drugs, starting with the ordinary Aspirin, and ending with something as powerfully suppressing  the immune system as Prednisone.  My European doctors prescribe me Ketoprofen, while American doctors give me Meloxicam. For years, I saved a stash of prescription meds that worked for me, and you should too. However, prescription drugs may affect your functions. Also, using them after the period they were prescribed is considered illegal in some places, so use your common sense. If the wait for a doctor appointment is longer than the symptom onset period (I.e. two weeks), my common sense would be seriously affected….

8. Massage. The best is the Korean one, in which the therapist walks on your back. If you live near a massage parlor like that, consider yourself lucky. I have not found one yet in SE Florida. There is an excellent one called Spadium in the Korea-town near Penn Station in NYC. Some old Chinese massage therapists know what they are doing, but finding them is a matter of luck.

9. Healers. The spinal manipulation is traditionally done in many places, including my old country, and some of them are run by renowned healers. I consider myself lucky, because I happen to be in Gdynia (located in North Poland near Gdansk) from time to time, and whenever I am in Gdynia, I go to see Mr. Bogumil Kowalewski.  Mechanically speaking, it’s somehow similar to what a chiropractor do, except it’s done right. (Forgive me, I had a less-than-perfect  experience with the first American chiropractor I went to, so I stay away from chiropractors ever since).

9. After An Attack. I have been symptom-free for two years already, thanks to the steps described above, but I was hit on regular basis before, and I know it’s not fun. What saved me were epidural injections of cortisone-alike drugs, which I get as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms. Administered by Dr. Jonathan Hyde of Florida Spine Institute with me laying along the axis of a revolving X-Ray machine, showing precisely where the needle goes when it’s slowly inserted into my spine. Better than sex.

10. Over Counter. With such an extensive damage, achenes and tiredness are sad everyday facts. When doctors started prescribing powerful oral steroid immune suppressants, and I discovered the difference they make, I was looking for a magic source of similar medication.  They reduce pain, and extend days, allowing for longer work and better alertness, by tricking the overworked immune system to rest. However, they come with side effects. Which is why I started chewing licorice root, the natural source of anti inflammatory chemical. It comes with its own side effects and therefore may not be right for everyone. Do your homework. It works for me. Natural licorice is not easy to buy, as most products sold in the U.S. are artificial substitutes, precisely because of the licorice’s medical properties.

11. Soft padding. Twenty five years makes me indifferent to how differently I do things. Recently I also noted the major difference between boots I wear and the footwear used by  ordinary people. By trial and error, I identified one brand and model of boots made to military specifications, which lasts for six months, except for an occasional lemon. Their soles seem to be more shock-absorbing, and they generally hold a foot firmer. There are also some civilian specified brands which are more recommended than others. One common denominator of good shoes is they are neither cheap nor easily purchasable.

Good luck! And please share what worked for you!