Sunday, October 16, 2011

A cry for help

Friends, I need your aid and support at this time.  Support in particular.  I have discovered that my teaching regimen of four lectures a day, three days a week is giving me serious lower back pain.  As a practical matter, I have to stand in order to lecture — otherwise, I can't make eye contact with too many students, I lose energy and focus, and in any case, I have a tendency to pace around the stage or podium area as I talk. 

Clearly, I'm getting old, since I never used to notice that standing and walking gave me lower back pain.  What am I supposed to do, or wear, or avoid in order to stave off feeling achy and exhausted three afternoons a week?  Surely other professors have experienced the heartbreak of backache.

I noticed this especially last week when I proctored midterms for all my sections.  My TA and I were both groaning and muttering by the end, and zi is way younger than I am, so I'm hopeful that this is not entirely a function of my being a broken-down old coot.


  1. I had a six-eight month period where I was having constant lower back pain that was exacerbated by standing for long periods of time. The only thing that helped me was doing back exercises -- stretching, really. You lie on your back in bed and pull your knees to your chest and hold it for 10 seconds at a time. Alternately, you can stand and bend to touch the floor with your hands, holding it for ten seconds at a time. Do that about 15 times, and you limber up. It's got to be a daily thing for a few weeks, and then you feel lots better.

    Lecturing that much is going to be exhausting no matter what, but having accompanying back pain doesn't help, certainly. I'm sure there are websites that describe other back stretches you can do, but these were the most helpful to me.

  2. Google "Pilates exercises for lower back pain". I've found a few that are easy and make an incredible difference.

  3. Yep. What your other commentors said. I have a bad back--it "went out" twice early in grad school, and though that's never happened again I'm vigilant about it.

    Lower back pain is usually caused by tight hamstrings. So lying flat on your back and raising your legs one at at time, and then together, perpendicular to the floor/your back, is a good stretch, as is hugging your knees to your chest, as is doing what they call in yoga the "happy baby" pose. Frankly, I find that just lying on my back with my knees bent--feet either flat on the floor or raised up to various heights--for five or ten minutes really helps get me back in alignment. Do it morning and night.

    And Ibprofen. And make sure you have a good mattress (or, if you can't afford a good one, an egg crate under a thick mattress pad).

  4. Beyond what everybody else has said--

    1) Is there a table in the front of your classroom? If you perch on the front of it, can you still make enough eye contact? This works for me, but my lectures are on the order of 25 students.

    2) What about your shoes? Are they sufficiently supportive? Maybe some off-the-shelf orthotics to help a bit? I'm sure I've seen some marketed for back pain. (My teaching-related injuries are all foot related--plantar fasciitis and bad ankles.)

    3) I've had excellent luck with a chiropractor for computer-related back/neck strain (and for wrist RSIs). If there's one around in your neck of the woods, it might be worth a visit.

  5. In addition to the other excellent suggestions above, I would second ajnabieh's #1: I find that leaning/perching really helps when I start to get tired. My classes are pretty small--typically 15-25 students--but, unless it's a seminar-style class, I like to stand because it seems to make the class more dynamic. (And I'm a pacer, too.) Resting against the table or kind of half-sitting on it is a good compromise position, though, to give my back and legs a break.

    And I noticed a lot of back and leg pain in my first semester of teaching, too, but I have considerably less now--so apparently physical endurance can be built up. Who knew that teaching was such a physical activity!

  6. You posted about your shoes being on their last legs a little while back, so go get new ones --- even skip the "professional" look to get the most supportive for standing/walking ... if that means you are wearing hiking boots or insoles or whatever, so be it!

    I too love the yoga and pilates for helping out my back, but be aware if you are going from no exercise (or none of these) to exercising you're just gonna feel shitty and still have back pain for about a month until you start to adapt to it.

    Also, I have a similar schedule and I take naps. Seriously --- I come home in the early afternoon and crap out on the sofa for 2-3 hours, and then I am good for dinner and a little more prep/grading. It's just a tiring adjustment period to go from little to heavy teaching.

    Good luck!

  7. Do some yoga sun salutations (google around for a demo). I find that lingering in that forward folding pose does wonders for my back and hammies.

    Also, I echo others when I say, "Get good shoes!" Something nice, supportive, and maybe with some insoles? I will scrimp on a lot of things, but I've stopped buying cheap, shitty shoes. My back and feet are much appreciative!

  8. Ah, brilliant suggestions, everyone! I'll have to try out all this yoga stuff.

    As for the shoes, I really didn't think mine were so bad on support, but perhaps they're too worn to help me now. Being the dorky academic type that I am, I've been buying this same pair of shoes in both tan and black for years:

    You know, they have nice sturdy soles, and they look tolerably professional as well. Mine are totally worn out from my last sojourn to Research Country, but I seem to recall that they don't hold up too well even in the US: a good pair of shoes ought to go a little longer than two years without needing an overhaul, don't you think? So maybe I need to upgrade to something sturdier.

    Jeez, and now I will become another academic blogger driven to fret about shoes. I should have known that I couldn't avoid fashion questions forever.

  9. In addition to the great suggestions above about yoga, pilates, and tight hamstrings, strengthening your core in the front as well is really important. Basic pilates exercises are really good for this.