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How stories can help you manage a bad back

While having a backache is a common enough condition, a writer discovers that there are some rather uncommon ways of dealing with it

While  Elle Woods's iconic bend-and-snap method may be great at getting a man's attention, it is terrible for your back
While Elle Woods's iconic bend-and-snap method may be great at getting a man's attention, it is terrible for your back (iMDB)

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The anger was rising. My mind was racing. The limbs were clamouring for action. It was time to stop the wars and set the world in order. As I watched Covert Affairs’ Annie Walker solving problem after problem in Washington, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Berlin, Mexico, Russia and other exotic places, the fire in me roared to do the same.

My back, however, had other ideas. As I straightened it, I heard the words “Abort mission! Cease action now!” It was my orthopaedic intruding on my dream to say this: stop walking, standing, bending, lifting or sitting for long periods, especially when in pain.

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“I’ll just go rappelling, shall I?” I wanted to retort.

Adding insult to injury, he had said, ‘‘Don’t sleep too much during the day.’’

“I don't take naps at all,” I responded.

“Most people of your age do. You have a mild degeneration of the bones in the lumbar region.”

“How? I’ve always been so active!”

“Bad posture. Most people do most physical activities incorrectly,” he said.

And so, while wars were raging, I had to swallow my pride and the painkillers, settle back in my chair for short durations to give my back some rest, and finish watching Covert Affairs, half an episode at a time. In this American television series, CIA operative Annie Walker played by Piper Perabo and her visually-impaired handler Auggie Anderson (Christopher Gorham) show no signs of aches or broken bones as they crash into immovable objects and leap through hostile air. With her intense training, quick thinking, charming ways, loving heart and nimble action, Annie goes on missions all across the world.

I’d have liked to too, but it seems unlikely at this point given the way my back has been behaving lately. Instead, I travel virtually via fiction. Strangely, having a painful back helps me delve even more deeply into these worlds. Take that Sunday, a few weeks after my doc visit, when the pain was so intense that all I could do was sit in the swing chair on our balcony, counting the tomatoes in one pot, taking in the aroma of basil leaves in another and dreaming of making a nice Italian salad, suspending all plans of work. I managed to finish an entire book in one sitting, something I haven’t done in many decades.

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Playing for Pizza by John Grisham starts with the hero on his back (but, of course), in a hospital bed in Cleveland after being beaten up by a football fan, something that resonated with me (and my back). This short novel is an easy read, even if, like me, you know nothing about American football. Grisham may have written it during a week of long, multi-course lunches in some small town in Italy. But I wasn’t complaining. Give me any sport, add plenty of food, garnish with some humour, present it in a nice setting, and I can slurp it up. The story was engaging enough to lull me into forgetting my troubled back. It settled a brain trying not to freak out at the thought of being unable to sit, stand, walk or sleep properly. It even gave me hope; after all, the battered quarter-back in the book does find deep satisfaction in pretty Parma.

After the thrills of viewing spy shows and consuming too many literary pizzas, I had to get back to reality and start writing. Ouch! Ten minutes on the laptop felt like I’d done tummy time in a rocky war zone and ambushed a few baddies in Russia. Getting off the chair seemed as strenuous a task as if I’d single-handedly made wood-fired pizzas for a team of ravenous footballers. It was time to go back to the orthopaedic.

He advised me to get some X-rays. “Your laptop is the culprit. Chuck it. Get a desktop if you want to avoid neck and back issues,” he said.

The truth strikes me. Annie Walker is hardly ever in front of a laptop. She does sneak into high-security offices to siphon sensitive information off desktops. Or, Auggie gets it for her with a few clicks on his impressive data-tech devices with fancy screen readers.

At this stage, the unkind reader may remark that sitting in front of the tv was probably causing the backache. Please note that I now use our ironing board as a standing desk, and have reduced laptop time, often using my phone instead to google up fun facts like “John Grisham + how does he write tombs + backache.”

Sadly, that hasn’t worked to alleviate the pain much. “Do you use the mobile phone a lot? Ah, that also causes back and neck pain,” the doc had said.

So, what can you do instead?

1. To retrieve fallen objects or pick up any weight, bend at your knees. Do not swoop down by bending at the hip or waist. The Elle Woods bend-and-snap method demonstrated in Legally Blonde is not medically recommended. No, you can’t sue Witherspoon or the producer for damages.

2. For normal movements that include heavy work, use the legs, hip joints and pelvis rather than the spine. Whether you’re giving your toddler a piggyback ride, or moving furniture in your apartment, apply physics instead of wringing your spine.

3. For long hours of work at a desk, check if your shoulders are relaxed and squared away, your spine is firmly against the back of your chair and your screen is at eye level. Ensure that your fingers are spread out on a generous keyboard and your feet are firmly on the ground or on a small bean bag. Slouching is bad news for the back.

4. Walk. A lot. If walking is painful, try working out in shallow swimming pools.

5. Exercise. Yoga and Pilates help to correct one’s posture. And yes, while cardiologists want us to use the stairs, orthopaedics suggest people prone to backache do less of it.

6. Oh, and definitely, do whatever you need to do to keep mental stress at bay – tense muscles aggravate back pain. I recommend taking in short bursts of stylish and humorous whodunnits on screen or in books.

Mala Kumar plans to book a back massage session after she retrieves her phone from one of Bengaluru’s lakes.


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