Tuesday, March 13, 2007


That's it, then. A diagnosis. Did I mention a week or two ago that I had to go in for a CT scan? My doctor at Kaiser had recommended it after hearing me complain, in the past several months, about numbness in my two outer toes on the right side and, increasingly, pain in my right leg and right hip. The lower back pain has been going on for years. I guess that's so common it's barely worth mentioning. Anyway, they loaded me onto their machine and slid me through that huge electronic donut a couple of times to take pictures and now, lo and behold! A diagnosis. A name for the pain. It's "spinal stenosis." "Moderate," the doctor reported, "to severe."

Sounds pretty bad, no? But then I guess all medical names sound awful. To judge by this picture (NOT my picture, friends! I culled it from the Internet and I hope it's a lot worse than mine!) it looks pretty awful, too. The cause? Who'd have guessed it? Aging. Here's a medical decription.

"Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal. That’s the long vertical space, encased by your vertebrae, that protects the spinal cord (see picture).

"The size of your spinal canal is genetically determined, but it can be narrowed by the effects of gravity such as arthritis, spinal misalignment, disc herniations, etc.... That’s why spinal stenosis is more common as we age. A small canal limits the room for the nerves and spinal cord causing low back and leg pain, especially when standing and walking. Sitting and curling up in a ball temporarily enlarge the canal and relieve the pain."

I include all this--the description and the picture--in part in the interest of clarity, but mostly to scare myself with the facts, and to remind myself of the importance of my meditation practice, particularly now that age has begun to take its toll on the physical body. I hope and believe that it will help me watch the inevitable deterioration with some equanimity, and that I may learn to observe and experience all those inevitable aches and pains without becoming attached to them and turning them needlessly into suffering. In other words, to age with as much grace and acceptance as possible.

Which does NOT mean, of course, capitulating to the ravages of time without reasonable care and resistance. In reading up on spinal stenosis, I believe that the best way to address it is with exercise: I plan to increase the relatively little time I have devoted to my yoga stretches, and try to generally exercise more.

Ah, and then there's the unmentionable... uh, diet. The plain truth of the matter is that I'm fifteen pounds heavier than I should be. That's fifteen pounds that my back has to carry around and hold up straight. Fifteen pounds of extra stress. No joke, really. I keep intending to do something about it, but the good intentions don't get translated into the necessary action. I know that it's something I can address with mindfulness, but this remains one (more!) place in my life where the need to match intention with action is all too evident.

Note to self: meditate on what it is about me that needs to console itself with an overconsumption of food... Ouch! Time to "curl up in a ball... to relieve the pain"?!


carly said...

P: You know what I would say, but will anyway. Increase your yoga. Which came, by the way, from Taoist ideas, of positing movement against rest.
I can send you a link for a video of Tai Chi exercises. I'm tellin ya, they're great! You could even invent your own stretch exercises by doing what feels good.

Discipline, discipline. Buddhism is high on discipline, is it not? If your practice isn't working, increase your practice! If that doesn't work, increase your practice.

tip for the aging of mind: Get a couple easy to open clips and a chain or strech cord,etc, like a pocket watch fob, and attach your keys to your belt loop. Your "tether" reaches the ignition. Therefore, you can't get out of the car without the keys! Simple. Put your wallet on one too, even the young do it.

If you can't go off and into a monastary, some organization will free you up for peace of mind.

Monk story.
I was in Koyasan, religious mountain monastic enclave, Japan, staying in one of the many Buddhist monasteries there. We went into town to the Post Office and to look around. Lee went in to the PO, and I stayed outside to take pictures of some pilgrims on the street. Many Japanese travel their country visiting important temples and wear these white shirts with red stamp imprints all over the backside from each monsastery visited. One guy had over thirty.

When a new Toyota van pulls up in front of my camera, and a monk jumps out. It was a little bit of a shock, a monk in a new car. The contrast. Could have been any guy. He just happened to be in monks clothing. I went there to see the old. How well integrated this monk was in contemporary materialistic society. They must have done away with that daily chain of begging monks through town some time ago.

Funny. We want to be more like monks. And they want to become more like us, using modern things like faxes, cell phones, cars, advertising techniques, raising money schemes, etc, etc. I met a young one in Hawaii who watches TV!

Mark said...

How strange that you and I have that in common. My doctors diagnosed me with moderate to severe spinal stenosis when I was 17. I pole vaulted for the better part of five years and, although I was very successful, I had to stop at the pinnacle of my career due to the sustained back injuries it caused me. My doc said my back condition at 17 is typical of a 70 year old man! Kinda eerie.
Moral of the story for me was that I shouldn't attach happiness to things like pole vaulting and earthly success. Stuff like that is fleeting and can be taken away at a moments notice. Enjoy it, yes, but don't build your welfare upon it.
By the way, I recommend swimming. Fantastic exercise that won't hurt your back.

carly said...

P: I am going to check into the public pool down at Riverside Drive and Los Feliz Blvd, to see if there is a time of day when all the kids aren't there, and start swimming. Probably first thing AMs.If you wish, I can tell you my finding. Right now the pool isn't ready

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks for the responses--and the tips. Curious, Mark. Any idea what caused your spinal stenosis at so young an age? Then again, maybe I've had it since that age, without knowing it. Lots of backaches to tell the tale! Cheers, PaL

Mark said...

The doctors said that the stress pole vaulting caused my back to go through ended up deflating the bottom three disks of my back, which messed up the whole thing. I've ended up, with the help of a year of solid physical therapy, being able to have full function again with minimal pain at night. Now I've gotten myself into cycling, fantastically fast and low impact.

"James" said...

Ah, impermanence.

I like the elliptical machine. I carry a lot of weight in the front and have some back pain from that and the elliptical seems to be easy on the back.