Relative Something

*this* John W. Hays' take on things and experiences

Posts Tagged ‘Degenerative Disc Disease

Pushing Through

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It has been a long stretch of time since I played either of my guitars. Lack of playing tends to become its own feedback loop. Arthritis in my hand discouraged me from pulling out my instruments as often as I used to, and not playing regularly led to the loss of calluses on the fingertips of my left hand. Lack of calluses fed into an inclination to not bother playing and the situation dragged on and on.

Alas, recent activity to ready myself for the Tour of Minnesota bicycling and camping week triggered thoughts about bringing my travel guitar this year. Before fulfilling that idea, which I said back in February that I planned to do, I figured I should check out whether I could still form chords with my left hand.

I was a little rusty, but mostly functional. My session was rewarding enough that I felt inspired to try a second time a couple of days later. That went even better, despite the tenderness of starting the process of developing new calluses. Then I moved to reach a particular position and experienced the classic jolt of a painful joint.

(No, Mary, I have not had the surgery performed yet, despite your wise advice to not wait. The doctor preferred waiting, and I chose to not try convincing him otherwise.)

After that stab of pain, the rest of the session tended to become increasingly more comfortable. It seemed a little counterintuitive at first, but then I remembered a similar experience during a lumbar disc pain episode.

The body has a keen ability to constrict movement in the presence of pain, but remaining oblivious to what is happening in these situations can allow that avoidance of pain to become its own malady. I made a surprising discovery during an early assessment of my condition when physical therapy was prescribed.

The therapist asked me to show them how far I could bend over to reach toward my toes.

“Bend over!?”

My thinking was that I couldn’t bend at all without suffering that stabbing pain. That is why I was moving around like a stiff zombie!

So, I set about showing her how I could barely lean forward at all. To my surprise, those initial hints of possible pain that normally freeze any further motion did not get any worse as I pushed through them. I was able to bend a lot farther than I believed possible.

The same thing happened with my hand yesterday. The avoidance of pain had kept me from trying to play the guitar, bringing a mindset that it would no longer be possible. Pushing past that warning message of pain proved there is still some function left in the old joint.

I don’t have the strength I used to, but I can still manage a few chords for a reasonably short duration of pickin’ and grinnin’.



Written by johnwhays

May 30, 2019 at 6:00 am

Other Examples

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As long as I’m on the subject of sticktoitiveness, there are two other examples in my life that have slowly rewarded me for staying the course day after day, in one case, for years.

When I finally took action to address an addiction to sugar which manifested in cravings that controlled my decisions, I had no idea what lay ahead for me. I had previously experimented with simply cutting out desserts and cookies or candy treats for a random period of weeks, just to see if I could, but I neglected to account for the amount of sugar I was getting from other sources.

My cravings for breads and cereals would ramp up to impressive levels, and I would allow myself those compromises.

After learning more about where I was getting most of the sugar in my diet, and discovering the actual measurement of sugar recommended by the World Health Organization for percentage of daily calories, I set out to control it by watching the numbers.

That made a big difference. First of all, it showed me how physically addicted my body, and mind, had become. I experienced withdrawal symptoms that included headaches, dizziness, nausea, and tremors, not because I cut out sugar completely, but simply by strictly limiting the amount of sugar in the food I was eating.

It has taken me years at the rate I am working it (because I waver with my level of strictness), but self-control slowly improved to a point where it hardly takes mental energy to employ anymore. Most importantly, I am not just doing this for a period of weeks. This is forever. I always measure how much cereal I eat, and I always check serving size information to figure out how much sugar there is.

A more recent adventure in every day tenacity that I am watching produce slow results is, my daily planking exercises. When I started back in the last week of March, I decided to see what results I might achieve if I did the exercises my physical therapist recommended for the entire month of April. These were focused on strengthening my core to treat the painful symptoms of degenerating discs.

It is really helpful to not be constrained by debilitating pain when doing daily chores to care for our animals.

Thirty consecutive days of planking in April established enough of a pattern that I found it easy enough to keep going through May. Then two months became four, and in a blink, I’ve made it eight months of pretty regular planking. In that time I have slowly gained enough strength that I have modified my methods to match.

The current plank that is my primary exercise is four minutes long, starting with a minute and a half of a basic horizontal planking, then 45 seconds of lifting an opposite arm and leg for a two-point plank, 45 more seconds with the other arm and leg, and then finishing with a final minute of the basic plank again.

There are other leg exercises and some yoga stretches that get mixed in after the planking, depending on how much time I have to spend, but the planking is key.

Between these two daily efforts of healthy controlled-sugar diet and regular exercise, practiced over months and years, my physical health is in better shape than most of my previous adult life.

That is providing plenty of incentive for me to stick to this indefinitely.

Maybe the fact that these steps are not a quick fix, makes the positive results that much more satisfying. It definitely provides a welcome bonus of boosting my mental health, as well.



Instant Aging

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I have developed an unmistakable hunched-over gait that instantly adds years to my appearance. Even though I have been able to carry on with a wide variety of chores, my recent disc flare up has slowed my motions dramatically.

I didn’t have too much discomfort mowing the lawn on the small tractor. I did mostly okay using the power trimmer to cut back the overgrowth along the trail outside our southern fence line. I raked. I used the pitchfork to turn composting manure.

Oh, the chickens love that task. We uncover a lot of crawly insects when disturbing the compost piles. We do the scratching for them. They just show up to reap the rewards.

Funny how they turn those creepy bugs into eggs we find irresistibly delicious.

Regarding my difficulty with standing straight after I’ve been sitting for a while, I’ve got a hunch. Without actually being able to see how the degenerating disc is causing me pain, I can only guess using the sensations I feel.

For the most part, there is nothing more than a dull sense that something is amiss. I never know what movement or gesture is going to result in the feeling of electric shock, when I presume the bulging disc suddenly reaches a nerve.

It seems to me that my body takes it upon itself to protect me from the possibility of the shock by locking up the muscles in the vicinity. This happens unconsciously, and when I try to stand up, those frozen muscles are no help. The remaining muscles have to do all the work, and my movements look incredibly labored.

Eventually the rest of my back, neck, and shoulders become stressed and fatigued from essentially fighting against the frozen lower back muscles that are trying to protect me from the feeling of being stabbed.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy my body is trying to save itself from the stabbing shocks, but it reaches a point where the protection is as bad as the injury.

Today, I have new respect for the stilted shuffle of an old body. It’s probably busy protecting itself best as it knows how.

I’m hoping the continued addition of yoga strengthening and stretching positions will provide added information for my body to reign in the extreme reaction of seizing up completely.

Have you ever noticed how easy it is for aging to come on instantly, but regaining youthfulness requires a lot of effort over a relatively long period of time?

I fail to see the harmonious balance of nature in that.



Written by johnwhays

September 4, 2018 at 6:00 am

Karmic Humility

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Today is Friday, so I was able to sleep in because I don’t commute to the day-job on Fridays. The final minutes of my slumber this morning were filled with a dream about our cattle.

We don’t have any cattle.

Made me think of the saying, “all hat, no cattle.”

I would have said I was dreaming about cows, but after the great escape and tromping of our property by our neighbor’s bovine ten earlier this summer, we learned he didn’t have cows. His herd was all steers, so the term to use was, cattle.

I’m thinking my mind was dreaming of cattle to distract me from what is stabbing me in the back during my waking hours these last two days: degenerating discs again.

In a twist of karmic humility, instead of boasting about the progress of five consecutive months of daily plank exercises, I find myself focused on a debilitating flare up of stabbing back pains. The precious positive thread woven into this tale is the noticeable difference in level of disruption this time. I truly believe it is the result of the strength built up in my core from my string of consecutive days of planking.

When my series of painful back injuries were diagnosed as degenerating disc disease years ago, I was given a regimen of recommended exercises to treat the symptoms. The easiest was to walk a half an hour a day. Stretching and plank exercises were also advised. 

I was all about the walking, but the exercises weren’t activities that I easily maintained.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t my degenerating discs that inspired my decision to finally get serious about planking. It was more about vanity. I was unhappy that none of my healthy efforts ever seemed to put a dent in the paunch and love handles that graced my midsection.

Cutting the amount of sugar in my daily diet had gone a long way to trim out my overall plumpness, but that classic paunch persisted.

I also credit the annual Tour of Minnesota bike trip for inspiring me to plank. Knowing I was at a risk of not having enough opportunities to bike in preparation for the mid-June trip, I decided to try planking every day in April to at least build up my core strength.

My butt might not be ready for the trip, but the rest of me would be resilient and strong. Knowing that planking was also advised to ward off back problems did help maintain my motivation at the time. Who wants to bike all day and sleep on the ground at night with an ailing back?

So, I succeeded in planking all through April, twice a day, in fact. It’s said that doing something for 30 consecutive days goes a long way to creating a habit. I planked through May, June –taking a week off during the bike ride– and have continued pretty much every day since.

Sometimes I miss an occasional day, or skip a morning or night, but the habit has been established, and the developing results are noticeable. The paunch and love handles are losing ground. As the planking has gotten easier with accumulated strength, my routine has expanded to longer duration, two-point planks, side planks, and more yoga stretching.

This morning, the routine is greatly modified to accommodate a recently unhappy, worn out disc.

Consider me duly humbled.



Written by johnwhays

August 31, 2018 at 7:53 am

Epic Normal

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Some days are just days. The simple steps of tending to basic maintenance and chores that happen every day can become so routine they fade to obscurity.

Yet, living it feels anything but obscure. Each simple accomplishment brings huge satisfaction.

This weekend, having our son, Julian, visit to pick up a package that Fed-Ex delivered here, and recruiting his help with some compost distribution and wood splitting, were particularly rewarding.

We used the Grizzly to pull trailer loads of wood, and with him driving, I gained a perspective of the squeaky brakes that helped to push me toward finally taking it in to professionals for service. Julian helped me get the ATV secured in the bed of our truck and I dropped it off in River Falls.

It could be several weeks until I see it again, so we are hoping there won’t be significant need for clearing the driveway of snow until well after that.

Maybe in a sympathetic response to Delilah’s painful condition, I experienced a return of degenerating disc symptoms as I leaned forward to pick up a piece of firewood, which brought a quick end to the delightful progress we were accomplishing. I’m on limited duty once again.

Luckily, that presented no disruption to a planned visit from a co-worker and her husband. She wanted to surprise him with the trip because he has a big appreciation for the majesty of horses, despite little access to them. Cyndie was wise enough to guide some time inside the fence for them, a step that is reserved for very few visitors.

As always, Legacy proved the consummate companion for the interaction with his herd-leading confident calmness. Dezirea couldn’t spare but a moment to accommodate us, as her attention was otherwise fixed on something in the distance that I couldn’t see.

Regardless the obscuring nature of the inherent normal-ness of the weekend, it all felt perfectly epic.

Given the right perspective, living in the moment can provide that result.



Written by johnwhays

November 5, 2017 at 10:43 am

Walking Partner

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The best thing I can do for my back is go for a walk, so as soon as I got home from work yesterday, I headed out with Delilah for a little stroll around the property. She is very entertaining to walk with this time of year. The snow is deep enough that she struggles mightily to make progress through areas of undisturbed accumulation, quickly resorting to leaping like a deer to pounce over, instead of plowing through it.

She is happy to follow the trails left by the deer, or where someone has previously walked, sprinting to get way ahead of me, and then turning to see if I’m still coming. She shows intense interest in the scents lingering in the footprints left by the deer, and spends protracted moments in olfactory detection. If I somehow manage to catch up and pass her, she bolts to close the gap and then leaps into the deep snow for several pounces to get around me before reclaiming the trail.IMG_iP0473e

We came upon the pine tree that we picked up off the ground a few times last spring, and discovered it is showing signs of not having survived. It is one of several that aren’t looking so good, and has me thinking we should be planning to do some tree planting come spring so that we add more than we lose every year. We are already behind, because a similar pine on the front side of the house died last winter and had to be cut down.

While I was taking pictures of the tree, Delilah got in some small-game hunting beneath the snow.

IMG_iP0480eShe didn’t come up with anything except a face full of snow, which I attempted to capture before she shook it all off. I didn’t get much cooperation from her in terms of posing for photographs, but I think this does it justice.









I was lucky that the deep snow tired her out enough that she reached her fill of being outside at about the same time I was reaching my tolerance limit for walking. On this day, the deep snow and my ailing back ended up balancing our walking partnership perfectly.








Written by johnwhays

February 11, 2014 at 7:00 am

Costly Neglect

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I have done it again. For whatever reason I have yet to fully grasp, I have grown complacent about adhering to my prescribed daily regiment of walking 1/2 hour per day, and doing repetitions of a few simple strengthening exercises. Along with that neglect, I have heaped on a variety of risky behaviors like lifting things that are heavier than I should be lifting, raking and tilling muddy clay, or, as I discovered yesterday, bending over to entice one of the cats with fresh catnip.

I have degenerative disc disease. In the morning at work yesterday, I noticed a twinge that alerted me to be cognizant of my condition. I took note, but only superficially. As in, I will do something about this later. It didn’t take long to really get my attention, and cause me to change my behavior, after the phone in my pants pocket began to ring, and I tried to quickly get up to leave the area and answer the call. That focus on quickly getting to another room overlooked the part about getting up out of the chair first, and my body abruptly nabbed my attention with a searing pain in my lower back that caused an immediate abort, and sat me right back down in that chair.

I got the message, or so I thought. I took some ibuprofen, and did a few bendy-stretchies after lying on the carpet in the boss’s office for a time. When I got home at the end of the work-day, I took a second dose of ibuprofen and laid on the floor to rest. After a while, I felt a significant reduction of pain, and was able to do a few of my exercises. I figured I could renew my walking routine before the day’s end.

With the pain now subsided, I absent-mindedly began moving around the house. (How quickly do I forget?) I was showing Cyndie how the cats appeared to have only minor interest in the fresh catnip I brought home from work, and leaned forward, dangling it for Pequenita…


I think a disc blew out.

I know an expletive flew out.

That is the weirdest pain. It is like getting punched in the kidney, but not really. There is no external sensation of the blow landing. It is what it must feel like to have your innards punched. Whatever that nerve is, running along those discs, it sure doesn’t like being pressed. The muscles of my whole body seem to recoil. They want to all give out, and drop me to the floor, except, the nerve doesn’t like that either, so then the muscles have to flex. Suddenly I find myself locked in a precarious position where I can’t go up, and I can’t go down.

It’s comical, really. Unless you are the spouse standing right there, in full alarm mode, trying to figure out how to help. That part isn’t so funny.

In truth, I have learned that the body tends to over-react, in attempt to protect me from doing something that might lead to pain. At the first hint of trouble, it tenses up, pulling me back from doing anything brash. I end up walking like a little old man, taking little baby steps.

I’m grateful for that protection, actually. I’ve explained what happens when I get too nonchalant. It’s tricky, but somewhere in there, I would like to find the happy medium.

By the end of the evening, I was able to get myself walking again, albeit gingerly.

I am back to practicing being mindful of my actions, and have renewed motivation to resume the exercise routine I have been neglecting. Let’s hope.

Written by johnwhays

June 14, 2013 at 7:00 am