Posted by: Mike Ferruggia | January 25, 2011

Tai Chi and Lower Back Pain

So, in remaining humble and trying not to let the ego get in my way, I again want to share with you my journey with lower back pain, which I have been suffering from for about two years now. The ego is an issue because I want to believe tai chi is as good for you as we all say it is, and because I don’t want to admit that I’m injured.

Six months ago, the pain became much more chronic and painful, and still eschewing accepted medical treatment, I sought out chiropractic, which helped somewhat in alleviating some of the pain, but did not fix me, and long term was looking to be long term, and I didn’t feel it was going to fix the situation. Also, because most chiropractors don’t have the power to order an MRI, I felt I needed to get a clear diagnosis. So, I went to an M.D. last week and almost immediately, he diagnosed me with a slipped disc, but has ordered the MRI for confirmation. I had that today, and will find out for sure, I suppose, what’s going on down there mechanically.

Now the good news. After getting the initial diagnosis, I started doing my own research, found a guy on youtube called HolisticSam, and I recommend you check him out. He turned me on to something called the McKenzie Method, created by a physical therapist in New Zealand named Robin McKenzie. I recommend you get his book, 7 Steps to a pain free Life immediately if you have a similar diagnosis. It’s best to get the book, because he’s pretty clear as to when the method can and cannot help you.

In two days of doing the prescribed exercises carefully outlined in the book, I can honestly say I am almost pain free! I was almost ashamed to go for the MRI today because I was thinking after all this time, it night not show anything and the Doctor will think I am nuts, but I went anyway.

In addition to the exercises, McKenzie speaks at length about posture, and I have been following what he says, and I am resigned to the fact that I must change the way I stand and sit and even lie down. I don’t want to go into any of the book in detail because it will de facto be watered down and I think it is essential to read every word so you can follow the protocol to the letter. But from what I can see, if you are suffering from low back pain due to a slipped disc, this is an excellent book and protocol.

The other book I bought was by Dr. Sarno, and I haven’t started it yet, but he relates most back pain to emotional issues, anxiety and stress, and until we accept that, we’ll not fix ourselves. I’m going to read the book.

McKenzie, by the way makes an important point concerning ad hoc ergo propter hoc, which means, because it happened after the fact, it must be caused by the thing immediately preceding the pain. But he points out, while we may get back pain, say after physical exercise, instead of attributing the pain to the exercise, the bend, the lift, we also need to look at what we did right after, which is probably something like slouch down on the couch, or bend over and put out hands on our knees to rest.

Now for tai chi. When one is experiencing lower back pain, especially from a disc, you want to maintain at all costs the lumbar curve, or lordosis as McKenzie calls it. We use exercises odf extension, i.e., beding backwards(don’t take this as instruction in the method; get the book). Any kind of flexion early on is really bad, as it delays the healing process of the ligaments that hold the vertebrae and disc in place.

This is where my tai chi dilemma came in. To heal, I need to do back extensions, not flexions, and I need to keep my pelvis neutral to tilted forward. In tai chi, we learn from the beginning to pull the spine down, tilt the pelvis anteriorly, not too much, and tuck the tail bone, again, not too much. But these movements are ther exact opposite of what we need to do to heal the back. So, I have been depressed lately that my tai chi life, literally, might be at an end.

I’ve never purported tai chi to be a catchall for everything, but sometimes we have to accept that we have to turn to other methods, at least temporarily. I also don’t want to leave anyone with the impressiion that tai chi, in any way caused my injury. If anything, the culprits have been my poor posture before and after, slouching on the couch, in chairs, in the car, and poor posture at work, where i am on my feet all day and not standing correctly. Tai chi, I believe, is excellent for maintaining good back health once one is healed.

But now the good news. The McKenzie method is not just about extension. It is also about flexion, except the flexion comes after you have become pain free and is even necessary in order to restore a full range of motion. So, it’s a little early in the game for me. Two days have proven fruitful. But I believe in a week or two I will be able to begin McKenzie’s flexion exercises, and after that, keeping his regime in mine, resume my practice of tai chi chuan kung fu.

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