Bad backs part 2

I talked about my dad’s bad back previously and I mentioned that I myself had had a bit of a back scare. This a bit of an overstatement but allow me to explain.

My dad has (I think, he’s never had it diagnosed formally and remembered any label) an exaggerated kyphotic curve to his spine. He’s had it for as long as anyone can remember and as he goes through his 70s it only gets worse. I grew up with the idea that my dad was a hunchback. It never seemed to bother him so it never really bothered me. Once a friend pointed it out to me and I realised it was quite pronounced but mainly it just highlighted her tactlessness. We were 10 but I was a very nice, kind child. You don’t say things like that about other people’s dads.

I was not a thin child and from the ages of 5-11 I did something that is terrible for all girls’ confidences and body images: I did ballet. One day when I was about 9 or 10 I remember looking at myself in the mirror in my little black leotard, and realising that my frame was not the same as the other girls. My back was bigger. Wider, rounded, bigger. I felt huge and I felt wrong. I tried not to look in the mirror after that. And I didn’t think about it again.

When I was about 13 or 14 I realised again that my back was round. When I looked at myself side on in the mirror it stuck out from the back of my arm. Other people’s didn’t do that. I know because I spent many a day looking and obsessing. The only person who looked similar was… my dad. My dad with the hunchback. I was terrified. I obsessed about it for months. I realised that if I did have a curved spine I would need it treated NOW or it would affect me forever with no chance of changing it.

My mum is not the best person at reassuring me. She’s vague at the best of times, full of stories of how I had my back checked when I was younger but then actually that may have been my sister.. but someone must have noticed if I had a bad back. You’re fine, your back is fine… probably. I just remained scared for years until I stopped growing and then thought if I’d had a problem it would have showed itself by now. No pain means I’m fine right?

So years pass and I find myself at 23 in my first yoga class with my first yoga teacher. She’s talking about her new chiropractor and I’m tuning out because she has a tendency to misdiagnose people with “forward head” and twisted spines and I’m really just there to do yoga. Then she turns to me and says: “You could really do with going”

What?! Why?

“Your back is curved. I’ve seen you, you have an exaggerated kyphotic curve.”

*thunder clap* dun dun DUN

I spent the rest of the class in a state of near panic. I have kyphosis! I’m going to end up in pain like my dad! I won’t be able to do yoga!

I went home and researched. And researched and researched. I found the following things out:

  • People with kyphosis usually have pain, uneven shoulders and shoulderblades, they have difficulty twisting or bending backwards and when they bend over there’s a visible bump.
I had none of these symptoms. In fact my spine was the most mobile in the entire class (including the teacher herself). The only pose I had trouble with was paschimottanasana which was due to a tight lower back. In this asana most people’s backs look rounded but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with their spines. People look different! They have different bones! This is not wrong!

I took myself to the doctor (not to the chiropractor) and I asked him to check my back. My spine is not curved.

And my rounded back? It’s a large rib cage, it sticks out in the front and at the back. All the better to take deep calming breaths when people misdiagnose me!

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Bad backs

Thanks to Adan for the idea for this post.

First of all this isn’t about me, my back is fine. I did have a scare once but that’s an aside maybe for another day. This is about my dad. I feel a bit weird posting about my dad on the internet without his knowledge but with my slight anonymity hopefully that makes it ok. My dad’s a bit of a big deal in the island, he even has his own wikipedia page. Not everyone revives a dead language after all. If this post disappears one day you’ll know why.

My dad has a terrible curved spine, as in hunchback of Notre Dame type hump. I can’t say if it’s scoliosis, or excessive kyphosis or some combination of the two or something else entirely because I’m completely ignorant of the label that would be attached to his spinal curvature. Worse, so is he. My dad was born just before the war, as in the Second World War (my parents were getting on a bit when they had me) during a time when checking children for spinal problems and treating them was not a priority. I don’t know when he first became aware of his spine being curved, sometimes he says he noticed when he was a child, sometimes he says it was caused by a garage door hitting him on the back when he was a young adult. He just doesn’t care, it doesn’t matter to him.

Now he’s an old man and the curve is getting worse month on month. He’s frequently gasping with pain although he says the pain is intermittent and not constant. Sometimes his breath comes choppy as though it’s hard to breathe but then he still does his radio programme and he has a fine singing voice. It’s all a bit of a mystery to me.

What’s more of a mystery is the way that up until the curve was so bad as to become debilitating he did nothing about it. No X-rays, no doctor’s visits, nothing. He barely even talked about it until it became too obvious to not talk about. Recently, under the combined nagging of both me and my mum he has been to a doctor, had an X-ray (and promptly forgot what it showed), been to an acupuncturist and had an occupational therapist come to look at his home office.

Herein lies the problem: he spends all day working at the computer, with his only breaks involving sitting in chairs watching TV, sitting in chairs reading the paper, sitting in chairs eating, sitting in chairs drinking tea and sitting in chairs moaning to my mum. The latter being his favourite pastime. He has a bad spine to begin with and he fully knows all this sitting with the constant flexion of his hip muscles, the pressure on the back combined with the rigidity that sitting for a lifetime does to your lower back is even worse for him. But he does nothing.

Enter me, the fit, young, healthy yoga enthusiast daughter. What do I do? I am very much a ‘live-and-let-live’ kinda girl. This is how my parents raised me, they never nagged when I spent hours and hours of my teens online and developed a hump myself. Mind you they don’t usually congratulate me on my healthy spine either but that’s besides the point. I know that his lifestyle and lack of movement is making the pain worse. I know that yoga would help him. Even the pranayama would help him. Yet I do nothing. Why is this? Because it’s easier for me? Because I’m scared that I’ll come across as a know-it-all? Because I want to respect my father’s autonomy? It’s a problem that every grown up child has to deal with I know.

I just can’t understand how it is that he doesn’t want to learn more about his spine and learn how to cope. He says there’s no point because there’s nothing anyone can do, he’s too old. But this isn’t true, he can lessen the symptoms by doing gentle movements. I tell him this and he seems to believe me but yet he still doesn’t do it! What am I to do? The most I’ve done so far is let him borrow my Tai Chi dvds and strongly hinted that they’re very good. Is this enough? I just don’t want this lack of action to be something I come to regret.