Back Pain Needs a Revolution


 5 days a week I wake up at 5:45 and go drive for FedEx.

It takes me between 6-8 hours to complete my route in a suburb of Denver. So I spend about 35 hours a week delivering all the things that people order online: pet food, blue apron boxes, athleisure wear, sectional couches.

That's my day job. That's my position. 35 hours a week, I’m a cog in the machinery of our industrial economy. I’m a truck-driving, delivery man who gets a check every Friday, just enough money to stay in the game, put a roof over my head and food in my belly.

And with the time and energy that’s left, I pursue my art, which is working with back pain.

One of the bright sides of my day job is that I get to listen to Akimbo all day.

If you haven’t heard Akimbo yet, I recommend you check it out. It’s a podcast, but it’s a different kind of podcast. It’s not interview based. It’s not news. It’s not narrative. Each episode Seth Godin riffs for 20 minutes about how our Culture got the way it is, and how to bend it in new directions.

Akimbo is part of why I think Back Pain needs a revolution.

Because Back Pain is a problem that's been around for a long time—at least since the beginning of the Industrial Age—and no one has come up with an industrial scale quick fix that can actually solve it. Not in a way that mainstream culture can understand. We’ve institutionalized a number of practices that help some people with back pain, sometimes—Chiropractic, Physical Therapy, Spinal Surgery—but back pain still affects a huge number of people, and the institutional solutions actually have a pretty lousy record of working. The problem is nowhere close to solved.

This makes it an interesting problem to work on, because considering how normal it is to have back pain in our culture, it starts to seem like back pain is actually a cultural problem.

I just finished working with someone who put it really nicely. After 7 sessions of doing my decidedly avant-garde approach, she said, “I feel kind of caught between, ‘I just want things to feel better’ and learning this slow, intentional way of relating to my body.”

And what she evoked, which I thought was spot-on, is that our culture would have us believe that Back Pain is a problem with a quick fix, something like a car that’s broken down. Like back pain is a purely mechanical problem. I bet most of us believe something like this, that someone should be able to go in there, replace some part, put something back in alignment [like getting your tires aligned, right?], or strengthen some material, and that should do it.

But I’m proposing a different approach because I don’t think a mechanical fix is going to work in the long run. Quick-fix thinking uses the same cultural perspective that led to the problem in the first place, which is that our bodies are best used as instrumental cogs to serve a culture that generally wants more and more. More stuff. More money. More problems.

Wasn’t it Einstein who said, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”?

What I propose, instead, is that we approach back pain by learning to move slowly, in small ways, one movement at a time. Which would be a bit of a revolution for most people, because it’s not normal to give our nervous systems time to learn the ways out of back pain. Learning how to get out of back pain would be a highly personal and meaningful experience for anyone who took the time to do it, wouldn’t it? And it’s not industrial scale, it’s snowflake scale.

Culture teaches us to view problems in certain ways.

If we are going to revolutionize our approach to back pain, which I obviously think is possible and desirable, then we should start by creating the conditions for learning, which in the context of the nervous system means small, slow movements done with awareness. This will make it possible for anyone who wants to let their nervous system LEARN something, and that’s important because when you know how to learn something, then you can start to put together your own experience of your back for yourself, with less pain.

I think this depends on learning how to live not as cogs, not as machines that can be fixed, but like people who can learn how to feel better by feeling more. Whenever this happens, it’s a revolution.