pain


Improving your posture is not an easy task once your body becomes set in its ways. The obvious reason is that your joints lose their range of motion, your muscles become long in the wrong places and short in the wrong places, and everything gets tight. In my case, for example, the ribs and thoracic spinal joints do not move as freely as they should, and especially the upper thoracic spine is habitually curved forward. This places my head too far forward, placing strain on the whole axial system. This is not easy to reverse at my age, and I have been spending just over two hours a day at it for more than six months. (See here and here for more.) I am prepared to work on it for several more years, if necessary. I plan to live at least into my 90s and want to have a strong, flexible, pain free body for as long as possible.

One less obvious way that improving your posture is not an easy task is that habitual body position seems to be activity-specific. I am pretty good and improving at good posture while standing, sitting, and walking, for example, but only while doing extremely simple versions of those activities. Sitting in my truck, driving straight on the highway, it’s easy to have good posture as long as I am thinking about it. Making a right turn, however, is a completely different deal, for two reasons. First, the attention that I use to remember posture tends to be taken up by the brain activity of making the turn. Second, it seems that my body has a way of making a right turn that is a gestalt: what I am looking at and for, what I am thinking about, how I move, and the position of my entire body is molded by the pattern and memory of 24 years of right-turn making.

So unravelling that and making right turns with good posture takes some doing. And that leaves left turns pretty much untouched, not to mention playing guitar, having an emotional conversation, or leading an underarm pass while partner dancing.

I was cutting up big pieces of plywood today, using a table saw. I tried to figure out how to do this series of motions while keeping my body in good alignment. I wished that I could have a construction-slash-posture coach there, helping me out. Then I started fantasizing about people who use table saws for a living getting trained like that. I have worked on construction crews, and if you are lucky you get trained how not to cut off your fingers, but you never get trained how not to have a painful back in ten or twenty years. If it was successful, I bet the extra cost would be more than made up for by the reduction in worker’s comp claims.

On the other hand, it might not be successful. When I was first learning to dance, my teacher, Karly, spent some time emphasizing the importance of posture and moving my body into good posture. “Remember this,” she said. “This is what good posture feels like when you are dancing.” The problem was, I did not keep doing it. I think maybe I couldn’t. It was too much to think about at the same time–the feel of leading, the moves I was trying to lead, and posture. It was overwhelming. For that to have worked, I think I would have needed Karly to insist on perfect posture and never moving on before I could lead each move with perfect posture. That would have been very slow. On the other hand, I am going to have to do all of that work anyway, so that I can dance without hurting my body. That is my next project with dancing–start over, re-learning the simplest moves with perfect posture.

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I’ve been working seriously on changing my posture for the last six months. I’ve been seeing a chiropractor, a massage therapist, and a physical therapist. On normal days I do about two hours of stretching and strengthening exercises–postural reprogramming stuff that they have assigned. On super busy days I do about an hour’s worth.

I’m strengthening the muscles that hold my shoulders and head back and up. I’m lengthening the muscles that pull them down and forward. I’m decreasing the exaggerated curvature in my thoracic spine (called kyphosis), especially focusing on the top few thoracic vertebrae. I’m increasing the twisting range of motion in my thoracic spine and ribs. I’m learning to relax muscles in my legs and butt, back and shoulder blades. I’m learning how to sit differently, stand differently, sleep differently, and especially walk differently. I have an alarm set to remind me about posture every 20 minutes that I’m awake.

The thing is, I’m almost 40 and I don’t have kids yet. I need my body to stay fit for at least another 20 years, and preferably more like 50 more. But nearly three years ago I started having some serious pain in my body–after 37 years of being as athletic as I pleased, I was suddenly limited in how much I could run, lift, swim, and sometimes even walk. One year I could go to a Lindy Hop event and dance all day and all night, and the next I had maybe two hours, maybe 15 minutes in me. Unacceptable.

And it turns out it’s because of my posture. Joints, muscles, and their connections do not work properly if not in the optimal relative position to each other. The habitual position of my joints had put enough strain on my body that I started having intense pain.

My chiropractor once told me, “You are the most compliant patient I’ve ever had.” My PT and massage therapist have said similar things. That is exactly what I’m aiming at–the most compliant patient. I do not just show up. I do not intend to waste my money or my life getting care and then not following through with the recommendations of my providers. If you tell me not to ride my bike for 3 months, I start walking or taking the bus. If you show me how to walk differently, I will walk differently. If you tell me to do 45 reps of some new, super-awkward exercise every day for the foreseeable future, I will do it. I am your perfect patient. I do it because I’m hoping you know what will help. I want to make you look brilliant. And I do it because if, after a couple of months, what you do and have me do has not helped noticeably, I will find someone else to work with, because I have tried you and your ideas out to the letter.

A while ago I wrote a list of things that almost always make me happy, so I thought I should make a list of things that almost always make me unhappy. For symmetry, you know? In no particular order:

All things “scented”: soaps, lotions, deodorants, colognes, candles, cleaning products etc. I like the smell of roses, hate the smell of rose-scented soap.

Small talk: Please do not talk to me about things that you are not actually interested in.

Unripe fruit: I would much rather not eat a banana than eat a green banana.

Unsalted butter and peanut butter: In these cases, unsalted is often better than nothing, but generally disappointing.

Buying airline tickets. Or, really, buying any pretty expensive item that might not work out as I’d hoped.

Shoes that are the slightest bit uncomfortable in any way. Don’t tell me that they will break in. That’s the line of a lazy and/or evil shoe salesman.

The hard sell. This is the only real downside to being nice–you become a target.

Unpleasant sensations, especially pain, nausea, and cold feet.

Injuries that do not heal or that take a long time to heal.

Bigotry.

Spots on my camera lens that I cannot remove.

Not being able to see the stars for man-made reasons.

Packaging of most kinds.

Dust jackets for books. They are supposed to protect the book from dust? All they do for me is give me another, more fragile, thing to try to keep nice looking.

Being helpless in the face of injustice on any scale.

Bad food, especially Amtrak, airline cuisine.

Almost made the list: mild and sharp cheddar.

I was surprised that these criteria did not specifically mention pain. I had thought that sadism and masochism were about wanting to hurt and be hurt. Reading these makes me think that it’s more about issues around control and humiliation than enjoying the sensation of pain.

This is word-for-word from the DSM-IV-TR, pages 573 and 574:

Diagnostic criteria for 302.84 Sexual Sadism

A. Over a period of at least 6 months, recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving acts (real, not simulated) in which the psychological or physical suffering (including humiliation) of the victim is sexually exciting to the person.

B. The person has acted on these sexual urges with a nonconsenting person, or the sexual urges or fantasies cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulty.

Diagnostic criteria for 302.83 Sexual Masochism

A. Over a period of at least 6 months, recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the act (real, not simulated) of being humiliated, beaten, bound, or otherwise made to suffer.

B. The fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or important areas of functioning.