It is the job of muscles to contract on impulses from the brain. By contracting sets of muscles we walk and carry out our daily chores. Even while reading this, your eye muscles contract and release as they direct your eyes across the page and back again. But when an unnatural stress is placed on a muscle, the muscle locks up and simply won't listen to reason.
Experts generally agree that the majority of back sufferers need no longer be in pain or tiptoe around in fear that their backs will "go out" again after an initial attack, and that, indeed, most back pain is preventable. The answer lies in therapeutic exercise, both a stretching routine and a strengthening series.
Modern medicine has experimented with a wide variety of cures for low-back syndrome—traction, braces, diathermy, acupuncture, hot and cold packs, body casts and chiropractic manipulation. A new treatment, consisting of putting needles into bones and called osteopuncture, is now being touted. But to specialists like Root, neurosurgeon Bernard Finneson of Philadelphia (who has founded a back clinic) and Dr. Hans Kraus of New York (one of John Kennedy's back doctors and founder of much modern treatment), the answer lies in exercise if your problem stems from muscular tension and trauma. Exercise goes a long way to correcting poor posture; it will trim the waistline and ease tension.
"Poor posture, uncorrected throughout youth and adulthood, will almost always lead to a back problem," says Root. "The spine is S-shaped, and a simple law of mechanics is that stress, applied to a curved structure, causes the greatest load on the inside of the curve. The way to relieve an uneven load on the back is to flatten out the curve."
Here is a simple posture test: lift your head as far away from your toes as possible, but keep your chin tucked in. This flattens the top of the S-curve. As you do this, tilt your pelvis forward by contracting the powerful muscles of the buttocks. This contracts the bottom of the S, the lumbar spine, the weak spot. Now, slump back to your normal stance and see how poor your posture is compared with what it should be.
"In the lifelong contest between you and your back, posture is practically the whole ball game," says Root. "Most trauma pain is caused by poor posture. Most stress, tension and fatigue pain is caused by it. The same for disk pain, pregnancy pain and all other kinds of lower back pain."
One answer, then, is to do the above exercise as often as possible until the position begins to feel natural. Another way to better posture is to pretend that a wire is attached to your chest, pulling it straight up into the air.
Hans Kraus is most concerned with the effects of tension and emotional stress on backs. We live in a world far removed from the one shown in John Wayne movies. If the boss yells at us, we can't deliver a looping left to his jaw; we grin and bear it. We can't even run away from it. And so our biological fight-or-flight mechanism is short-circuited. Adrenaline pours into the system with nothing to do there: we become tight, tense, strung out.
Because so much of our movement capability is located in a small area of the lower back, its muscles, tendons and ligaments are the ones most deeply affected by tension, the muscular equivalent of a stomach ulcer.
Those convinced that violent exercise will relieve tension that vodka poultices applied to the inside of the body will not, are walking time bombs, ticking off the minutes until hit by crippling back pain. They suffer through rush-hour traffic to get to a driving range to thrash furiously at buckets of balls or they go out at dusk tingling with daily frustrations to practice their serves without proper warm-up exercises. They may be doing great harm in the process. This does not mean that one has to stop taking part in sports, or even do them at half-strength. What it means is that one's exercise must be calculated.