What does lower back pain have to do with personal finance?
I must admit, I never expected to be writing about lower back pain on this site. I started this web site to help others and to share some of my story. Truthfully, my core passions include personal finance and frugality. However, I found so many millennial and “retire by 40” sites that I thought to myself: “I’ve already covered a lot of that ground.” I wanted to continue to grow and learn myself. I also wanted to be able to enjoy a certain quality of life after working hard to attain a lot of life goals.
So I want to find, share and build resources and hopefully, leave a repository of information that might help younger people as they age. Help anyone for that matter.
The costs surrounding back pain can involve lost wages, treatment options and gadgets or products that supplement your mobility. It’s a big industry.
Living in New York City for the last 20 years, we’ve never owned a car and my wife and I enjoyed walking everywhere.
We’d be on the subway daily, and most weekends would venture into the city at least one day of the weekend to do something.
Right when I started getting close to 49 years old (3 years ago) I noticed it was a little more difficult to tie my shoes and I had some slight foot cramp pain when walking.
Then right around when I turned 50, it was like someone flipped a light switch and I was experiencing much more pain and less mobility. My legs felt heavy when I walked. I needed to rest after walking just a few blocks. I was pushing through some of the pain and could still hit 10K steps (about 5 miles) on my Fitbit, daily. As far as physical work was concerned, I still did some warehouse work for my former employer and built an entire IKEA kitchen by myself. However, I noticed continuing lower back pain that wasn’t getting better and was probably getting progressively worse.
I went to my Doctor, who sent me for an MRI and it came back with the diagnosis of “Spinal Stenosis”. On the first visit that he told me about this, it didn’t really register. It was only during a subsequent visit that I caught the name again, and then started doing research.
Back pain is such an illusive thing and General practitioners are not specially trained in this, so your Doctor might be like mine and not treating it aggressively. Also, today doctors are reluctant to prescribe serious pain medication in this era of problems with opiod addiction. In hindsight, I’m glad he didn’t give me any of those medications, but I still got the feeling that he wasn’t taking my pain seriously. I kept saying to him…”Geez! I’m only 50! What will this be like when I’m really old?”.
I don’t want to generalize, but if 40 is when people’s eyesight goes, I think 50 is when a lot of people start experience more serious back pain.
The textbook version of Spinal stenosis
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal. Basically all your nerves run from your brain through your spinal cord and are distributed to the rest of your body through your spinal cord.
Many of those nerves branch off and run through both of your legs all the way to your feet.
When your spinal cord gets more narrow inside the spinal canal, those nerves can become pinched. There are also other factors like disc problems and injury that can cause your nerves to be pinched.
That pinching can manifest in a number of different ways, but mainly it is lower back pain and often, leg and foot pain and numbness.
Here is a good quality summary video that sums it up nicely regarding the narrowing of the spinal canal. Courtesy of DePuy Synthes.
The type of pain
Now, let me qualify this right here. Do NOT SELF DIAGNOSE YOURSELF. If you’ve landed on this page and are reading it, you were probably like me. Looking for an answer. What I describe here might be shared symptoms of other problems, so please see your doctor or a medical professional.
If I’m walking around our 900 sq foot apartment and working from home, I almost don’t notice any pain. (during the day)
I can sit for a few hours, and then stand for a few hours. I can go the kitchen and make breakfast or coffee, no problem.
If I leave the house and walk straight for 2 or 3 city blocks, I (usuaully) need to take a break.
When you’ve enjoyed walking in the city of dreams for so long, this is a big adjustment. Many of the articles that I found on the internet described spinal stenosis as something of older people. They describe identifying people with it, with hunching over their shopping cart in the supermarket. Sometimes they describe it as a need to take frequent breaks on benches to sit down. I can tell you this, with the aging demographics in the United States, they are going to need to be installing a LOT more benches for people.
Some very famous sports players have back problems. These were never on my radar before this, or should I more accurately say, I was dismissive of those problems.
David Wright of the New York Mets supposedly suffers from Spinal stenosis.
Tiger Woods has had several operations on this back in an attempt to fix his problems.
After hearing about his 3rd operation on his back, I remember this past Summer thinking to myself. “They can’t fix a mega-millionaire sports stars’ problem? What are they going to be able to do for ME!?”
You start searching for answers. Let me save you some time.
See your Doctor first and some tools for minor relief
First thing is: Get a good diagnosis! See your Doctor. Get a second and third opinion if needed. Just go to the Doctor.
After that step is handled, here’s a short list…actually it’s a long list… of things I tried to lessen my pain and discomfort. In the end what I was really doing was trying to avoid the real work that would be necessary in fixing this problem. While some things might help, focus on the work that is necessary.
Added a stand up desk
Purchased an electric bike
New mattress for my bed
Purchased an adjustable base platform for my bed
Added an inflatable platform for standing at my desk
Purchased 3 different office chairs for my home office, finally settling on one
Added a sit down cushion.
Slip on shoes so I didn’t have to bend over to tie my shoes
Used an electric heating blanket and heating pad
Bought a stand up razor scooter
Purchased a $400 segeway personal
All of these things probably provided some marginal relief to my lower back pain, and you can easily see why this is a $100 Billion annual business in the U.S. Try some things to provide comfort, but don’t rely on short cuts. You will probably find much faster results in seeing a medical professional and focusing on physical therapy. A quick calculation of the above totals about $7,000 to $8,000.
I also tried to digest as much reading material as I could on the topic. I found this book intriguing and helpful. It pulls back the curtain a bit on this $100 Billion dollar annual industry, in the U.S. alone.
This book covers a broad range of treatment ideas with a healthy dose of realism about the industry.
I always stop short of claiming a conspiracy theory on medical issues, but it is a VERY big and lucrative section of medicine. Since there are 200,000 new cases of spinal stenosis diagnosed every year, it makes sense to try to do everything in our own power if we can improve our situation.
Don’t overdo it on anti-inflammatory medicine
I’ve had friends who nearly burnt a hole in the lining of their stomach by taking too many Advil tablets and aspirin products. Do not fall victim to taking too much medication. If anti-inflammatory medicine is the only thing that makes you feel better, then you should seek out other options because they can lead to serious issues. This is much more common than you might think. As we age, our insides are also more susceptible to things that we might have tolerated more easily at a younger age. Diet and alcohol consumption can also contribute to speeding up negative effects on your stomach. Also, don’t lay down, immediately after taking medication like this, if you can avoid it.
The Mental aspects
Just like I was dismissive of sports players back problems, I never fully understood the mental drain that comes with being in pain every day. It’s a real mind f$%#. That’s why comprehensive programs include mental health as an important component of treatment.
One of the programs mentioned in the book “Crooked” is 4 week intensive program at the “Research Institute of Chicago“, which was recently renamed. Here is a brief quote from the book that describes the program.
“Patients worked hard – five days a week, eight hours a day, for four weeks. They might begin the day with an eight a.m. Feldenkrais class, followed by a cardio conditioning session. Then came a pool workout, followed by lunch. In the afternoon, a group counseling meeting was followed by individual physical therapy. Patients engaged in four or five exercise classes each day, but there were also slots in the schedule devoted to learning relaxation techniques, including biofeedback and meditation. No absences were permitted, and there was always weekend homework.”
Individually, this program costs $45,000 if you were paying out of pocket, but they are working closely with insurance companies to educate them on how this will ultimately save money in the long run.
Focus on physical rehabilitation
Often, our first two questions are:
- Can’t I just take a pill?
- Can’t I just have the operation?
While physical therapy can take longer, I think the work involved helps improve the surrounding muscles. It is also less invasive than surgery.
When I met my physical therapist (PT), I knew right away he was going to help me. He gave me a thorough physical exam and provide hope that we could make progress. He said he wants to see me 2 times per week and with a $40 copay, that’s going to be $320 per month. Much more expensive than a gym membership.
During my first visit I expressed my concern that I had put on about 20 pounds in the last year and I was worried that my belly might make the problem worse.
However, that wasn’t actually what I had experienced. Even when I was 20 pounds lighter, the pain levels were very similar.
My Physical therapist said that he had heard those theories, but he believed that the reverse might also be true. Because of the lack of activity, that is the cause for weight gain.
It’s a similar theory with sleep apnea. When you don’t sleep properly, or for the correct number of hours, you put on weight. When you get the proper amount of sleep, you are naturally more energetic and tend to lose more weight.
Finally, regarding resources, I found this broad article that had some helpful suggestions toward reducing lower back pain.
I’m well on the road to recovery, and I’m anticipating I will regain nearly full mobility again.
Failure is not an option.
Back problems can consume a LOT of resources in both time and money, along with a psychological cost. If you are experiencing any problems like this, my thoughts are with you, but make sure you’re planning and budgeting to take care of the problem, because it’s not going to take care of itself. Don’t let back pain derail your financial or life goals.