Things I’ve learned about dancing and having a bad back
The most scared I’ve probably ever been was when I woke up one day about seven years ago and couldn’t walk. Alone in the house, I lay in bed, imagining something terrible had happened and I had somehow become paralyzed. After awhile, I realized I was able to sort-of-shuffle around, very carefully walk down stairs, and pick up the phone, provided I lifted with the knees.
A few days later, able walk in a slow, stiff egg-shell walk, I had gone to the North Atlanta Spine Center (which it turned out was just an overenthusiastic chiropractor) and to the Emory Spine Center (which was a bored but probably brilliant doctor), both of which told me the same thing: I had a degenerated disc on my L5 and something I had done had spasmed the muscles of my lower back. The chiropractor told me I should drink lots of water and see him three times a week, the doctor simply gave me a xerox of some stretches and told me I should be able to do whatever I wanted again soon. They both mentioned that degenerated discs don’t really fully heal because gravity always keeps the disc compressed.
For the next few days, I got around using my grandfather’s cane, which was perfect for my height and scared the shit out of me; he is the grandfather everyone in my family says I take after physically, and he messed up his back so much he couldn’t walk without a cane. (I later asked my granny what he did to throw out his back. “Probably something stupid,” she said (in a very, kind, laughing granny-like way). She also added that it involved farming, which he had done all his life.)
The first incident happened a few days after I had been at an aerial practice with some friends and had been the base for the “horse” and “camel” three-person aerials while the other dancers learned it. I probably had people jumping onto the small of my back at least twenty times that night. (I have since realized, more importantly, I didn’t know how to properly engage my back doing these aerials, either.) I have thrown out my back three more times since then, all because of swing dancing, but more importantly, all because I’m an idiot.
Things I’ve Learned about Dancing and Having a Bad Back.
The #1 killer is victimization. A friend of mine has a bad back, and he sure seems to bring it up a lot, especially when you ask him to help carry something. Thinking you can’t do something is a very large first step for proving yourself right. Something very important for me to learn was that many professional athletes have the same back problem I do, many with worse. Even gymnasts, who are involved with similar work as a professional swing dancer in terms of muscular strength, flying through the air, and wear and tear on the body.
The #2 killer is, ironically, not being a victim. The other extreme of victimization is thinking that a bad back doesn’t mean anything. People with bad backs should really consider any major physical activity they’re about to do with their back in mind; it should dictate how they proceed. For instance; in my workouts, when something targets the back, I make sure I feel confident doing the exercises correctly and safely with very low weights. Then, once I feel comfortable, I try to keep pushing my weights more and more, making the exercise one of the ones I work hardest at, knowing that the stronger my back muscles are, the more support my spine will have.
No one ever seems to mention the terrible things we do to our backs. As soon as I found out I had a bad back, a lot of things started to make sense. For most of my life, I’ve been taller than my friends, and like many tall lanky men, I have slumped and had bad posture (often this is done to subconsciously put one at more normal height, or at least keep one from having to look down all the time.) Throughout highschool, I usually despised walking to my locker from classes sprinkled around the school, and pretty much carried every book I had in my book bag. What I imagined at the time was a good work out was actually just putting tons of weight on my bad posture and at strange angles on my spine. I did this pretty much five days a week for five years of my life, the five crucial years of adolescence when my body was deciding how it was going to grow (it chose: like a giraffe). And no one ever mentioned that it might be a bad idea. Or maybe they did—I daydreamed a lot then.
But basically, not one P.E. teacher ever mentioned how important good posture and body mechanics were towards one’s lifting-boxes and throwing-people goals. If it was mentioned, it was mentioned in Health class, a one-time class we took in middle school—a time when all our mental energy was spent being awkward around members of the opposite sex. No coach ever said “Squat like that and you’ll blow out your knees.” My relatives never offered “You shouldn’t slump, it’ll grow hair on your palms,” and no friend ever took me aside and said “Bobby, not only are you tearing up your spine by walking around with all your books in your backpack, but Marilyn Phillips would never date a guy who does that.”
No one, for instance, ever mentioned that wearing a belt too tight is a sure-fire way to throw out your back. This is where me being an idiot comes into play. After the last time I threw out my back, I realized that all my previous times throwing out my back had one thing in common: I’d tighten my belt.
When I was about to do an aerial, for instance, slightly loose pants that fell around my non-existent hips made me feel like leg movement would be restricted. So, I’d lift my pants and tighten my belt a little to get my pants higher on my waist. I’m an idiot because in trying not to restrict my legs, I didn’t realize I had restricted my spine, which couldn’t bend the way it wanted to because a belt was in the way. I now practice aerials in hideous elastic shorts and try to perform aerials as much as possible in pants with elastic suspenders instead of a belt. These choices have, so far, worked great.
[UPDATE 2/15/12: Dear Readers, I recently threw my back out again, and there were the common factors, including tightening my belt. However, I'd like to put forth a new theory on why this threw out my back which I'm currently contesting: I tilt my pelvis inward almost all the time, and this, according to the Gokhale Method is why I have a decompressed disc in the first place. I will write more about it soon in a post on posture, however, until then, I have noticed that by correcting my pelvic tilt, high-wasted pants no longer put the strain on my back they have for years before...so far...more coming soon. I have the feeling this is a big step towards helping my back problems immensely.]
You have to learn how to listen to your body to be a fit person. I’ve read a lot about how water in almost every way is helpful to the body, and that we need to drink a ton of it to be really healthy. But, our body’s way of telling us this is so subtle that thirst for water is often confused with hunger.
Our bodies tell us a lot, but we can be really, really bad at knowing what it’s saying, which reminds me of our cat, who will stare at us creepily and meow 317 times in a row. I’ll check his food, water, paws, core temperature, favorite sleeping places, make sure the vacuum cleaner is hidden from his view, and still don’t have a clue what the problem is. Likewise, I’m still learning how to listen to my back. It will twinge in different ways, and sometimes I feel the equivalent of one of those guys who sit on front porches and say “Oop, my corn’s hurtin’, must be a rain about to fall.”
There’s a different soreness for when I work out too hard, versus when I work out in the wrong way. There’s a different twinge I get when shovel snow for a half-hour, and one I might get two days later from the same activity. When any of these twinges happen, I try to pinpoint the probable causes—basically, try to think about the thing I did in the last several days that would have required a lot from my back. Such information is usually only preventative for the future; the only thing I can do when my back starts twinging is cancel any near-future plans for aerials and bust out the ugly shorts.
Exercise helps a lot. This one’s probably an obvious one, but it’s so important I wouldn’t feel right not mentioning it. Aside from making you stronger and more durable, exercising with a good trainer (who actually knows the proper postures and mechanics of training) is actually practicing in a controlled environment the things you do in real life that can hurt you. Because of working with trainers and having sports doctors look at my exercise and dancing form, I have a much better understanding of how to safely engage my back whenever I do anything, from picking up a stick to throwing women.
I’ve also realized how exercising is great for when my back starts to twinge. If I feel a possible spasm coming on, I’ll still try to keep to my workout schedule, though perhaps take it a little easy on the back exercises. I often find the exercises leave me feeling better, and so far, never worse. I imagine this has something to do with the exercises stretching out the back, heating up the muscles, and getting the muscles working together again. The down side of this is that I don’t have an excuse for not doing my incredibly long yoga DVD. In fact, the yoga’s one of the best for when my back feels off.
Good posture helps a lot. The more I think about and work on good posture, the more I see its benefits. Good posture puts the back in its strongest alignment, and ties all the skeleton together in terms of how well it can work. It also puts all your organs in comfortable positions, allows you to breathe correctly (stuff mentioned often in Alexander technique), and even makes you more emotionally confident by it’s subconscious and social implications. Another thing I learned is that it takes a lot of hard, vigilant work to fix your posture. I’m still working on it.
To get a better back, do everything good to every other part of your body. To make sure my back is in shape, I do a lot of extra stretches to my legs, butt, neck, and shoulders. Basically, all parts of your body affect the spine, whether directly or indirectly. For instance, the head is like a bowling ball attached to the top of your spine–it’s weight and position have an enormous affect on the thin string of vertebrae below it.
Engage your core. Yet another way I was an idiot when I threw out my back is that I didn’t understand how to engage my back muscles when doing things that required back strength. I sort of just hurled things or picked things up willy-nilly. This is the well-worn workout phrase “engage your core.” There are several aspects involved, but basically, if you only had on underwear and a tank top, the fabric would cover your core, and all of these muscles, when engaged (tightened), stabalize the spine, provide balance, and basically make everything you do more powerful and safe. Some simple advice on how to engage the core is to have good posture and imagine driving your belly button towards your spine. But if you need more than that, there’s plenty of advice on the internet, including this rough guide on specifically how to engage your core.
I should note that in no way am I a doctor, and the things I’ve “learned” to help me deal with my bad back, for all I know, may be harmful or deadly to you. I’m still learning everyday myself.