Friday, March 20, 2009

How Aspirin Saved My Back

By Glenn Campbell

Like millions of other humans, I have suffered from severe lower back pain. When it happens, I can hardly move. Bending over, standing up, sitting down, carrying things, and virtually every action involving my back becomes extremely painful. At times, it has been so bad that I have walked around like a hunchback, staring down at the ground, because standing up is impossible, and I have even used a wheelchair when available.

Although I have never had a diagnosis (except a "Welcome to the club!" from my doctor), I believe I suffer from an "herniated disc" (see Wikipedia). The rubbery disc between two of my vertebrae becomes inflamed and protrudes out of its usual enclosure. That allows it to become pinched between the bones of the vertebrae, making things far worse.

Back pain is part of the human condition. It seems that we were never intended to walk upright or to live so long (not to mention sitting on our hineys all day), so the back isn't prepared for the lifetime of stress placed on it. Nearly every adult is going to suffer back problems sometime in their life.

However, I don't have back problems now. Despite an occasional twinge now and then, I haven't been disabled by back pain in at least two years. To what do I attribute this good fortune? It's a cheap and simple cure: aspirin.

Just plain, ordinary aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid, see Wikipedia). No other painkiller will do. Not ibuprofen, acetaminophen, back rubs, or any product advertized on TV. Just aspirin. Aspirin helps dull the pain, but that's not the reason I use it. The key effect of aspirin is to reduce inflammation and correct the mechanical problem in my back that causes the pain.

I use coated aspirin (specifically orange-colored "enteric coated" aspirin, 325mg) because raw aspirin causes me stomach aches. I take one or more tablets whenever I feel that slightest tightness or discomfort in my back, and that usually nips the problem in the bud. If the pain progresses, I continue to take more tablets, sometimes as many as 8 in a four hour period.

Aspirin, for me is a miracle cure. The effects are rapid and overwhelming (so much so that I feel compelled to tell others). I feel that it is the only thing that stands between me and a lifetime of debilitating pain. To me, any other approach is snake oil. Aspirin does more for me than any kind of lifestyle change, any special kind of bed or chair, any sort of exercise or change of environment.

The only time my back acts up is when I don't have aspirin handy or don't take it promptly. That's when a twinge of pain can turn into a full-blown debilitating backache that completely knocks me down.

I'm not saying that my back problem is the same as yours, and I'm not claiming to have any research to back me up. All I know is that it works for me, and if you have back pain, I think you should try it.

When my back pain was serious, I consulted with my doctor, but her advice and medications were not helpful. I discovered my own cure, so I have never seen a back specialist. Perhaps my back problem is only "in remission" and could come back later in a form that aspirin can't address, but right now I feel great! I can climb mountains and carry heavy furniture without slowing down. I still monitor my back carefully and listen to what it is telling me, but at least I know what to do. Whenever my activities seem to be stressing my back, I take a couple aspirin (and sometimes more) and I know I'm safe.

What is happening inside my body that makes aspirin so effective? Here's my theory…

Imagine two bowls filled to the top with bread dough. Invert one bowl and place it on top of the other, and you have a model for the discs that separate the vertebrae in the spine. The bread dough inside the bowls is a disc: a flexible, rubbery material confined to a tight space.

What would happen if the bread "rose" and the dough expanded? If the bowls were already full, the expanding dough would start to protrude beyond the edges of the bowl. As the bowls moved, they would pinch the bulging dough, and the dough (if it were alive) would feel pain.

This is what I think causes my back pain: a bulging disc that gets pinched. I suspect only one of my discs is the culprit, because my back pain happens in only one place.

I theorize that aspirin works for me because it shrinks the disc back to its normal size, so it is again fits within its container. If I fail to take aspirin, the swelling continues; the edges of the "bowls" pinch the disc and it becomes further injured. Soon, the system fails catastrophically, and it may take me weeks to recover.

The solution is simple: reduce the swelling as quickly as possible, and there seems no better agent for this than aspirin.

I am not worried about long-term use of aspirin, because studies show that regular use of aspirin decreases the chance of heart attacks and hypertension. It reduces clotting and decreases the build-up of plaque in the arteries. It seems to be a miracle drug for cardiovascular health, and the latest official advice I have heard is that everyone should take one child's aspirin (81mg) every other day.

I am also not worried about taking too much, because I have known heart patients who were prescribed massive doses of aspirin after surgery, to reduce swelling around the heart. Obviously, the mega-doses aren't killing them. With all the high-tech and brand-name medicines available, doctors still seem to rely on aspirin to reduce inflammation when lives are on the line.

Taking a lot of aspirin isn't necessarily pleasant. If I take more than four tablets, my ears begin to ring (tinnitus). That at least gives me the feedback of knowing that the aspirin has hit my system, and I'd rather have ringing ears than a painful back.

I have had as many as 8 tablets circulating in my system at once (given that aspirin is effective for about four hours). I have no hesitation about hitting my back with the full arsenal if I need to, but I find that two tablets taken at the earliest sign of discomfort almost always prevent the problem from progressing to the 8-tablet stage.

To prevent the problem from progressing, I always carry aspirin with me wherever I go. If I feel the slightest twinge, I take one or two, and I'm good to go. However, if I delay taking aspirin after the early warning signs, then my back may rapidly deteriote, sometimes crippling within an hour.

When I do take aspirin the effect is remarkably fast. Usually within about 10 minutes, I feel the tightness relieved.

I wonder how many people who have resorted to surgery, chiropracty, expensive furniture, massage, heating pads, special diets or out-and-out quackery would have been helped by my simple aspirin regimen. My solution costs only pennies and doesn't make anyone any money, so you won't find it promoted in any commercial environment.

I buy industrial-size bottles of enteric-coated aspirin on the internet, and I expect to get 1000 325mg tablets for $20 or less. (These tablets are orange and are manufactured by Bayer but are sold under a variety of generic labels. Here's one supplier.)
Prior to settling on aspirin, I tried all sorts of other cures. In the realm of "physical therapy," only one thing helps: lying in a hot bath or Jacuzzi or wrapping my back in a hot compress. This seems to be about half as effective as aspirin. The main trouble is that the effect wears off quickly. A half-hour after leaving the hot tub, my back is hurting just as badly as before.

There is one lifestyle activity that has a negative effect on my back: a waterbed. For years, I had to sleep on one, and it was devastating to my back. Countless nights I went to bed feeling fine and woke up in excruciating pain. I don't seem to have this problem when I sleep on a firm bed or even on the floor. (This may seem counter-intuitive, since people somehow expect an expensive waterbed to help them sleep.)

Trying to lift something very heavy can start the pain cycle, but I find that a much more significant factor is having a cold. Apparently, a cold triggers body-wide inflammation, which causes the disc to expand and get pinched. Whenever I have a cold or other systemic infection, I have to be constantly vigilant about my back, and I take aspirin almost continuously for as long as the cold lasts. Physical stress, on the other hand, seems to be a short-term problem. After I have done something particularly stressful to the back, like a long hike or helping someone move, I always take aspirin before and after the activity, and that seems to prevent any major problems.

Sitting for long periods doesn't seem to agree with my back. It is much worse for me than lifting heavy furniture or carrying a heavy pack. This is unfortunate for me, since most of the day I am sitting and looking at a computer screen. After I have been sitting in one place for a few hours, I find my back is rebelling when I stand up. Fortunately, one aspirin tablet usually addresses this. If I know I'm going to be sitting in a plabe for five hours, I take two aspirin at the beginning of the flight.

How much aspirin do I takes. Sometime, I am taking aspirin every day for several weeks and other times I can go for weeks without it. It all depends on what my back is telling me.

That's the main thing: paying attention to your own sensations. Even after I discovered aspirin, I often got into trouble because I failed to listen. I assumed the tightness in my back would go away on its own, so I failed to address it. That's when things got even worse.

If you do have a herniated disc, then nothing is going to work except reducing the size of the disc, and aspirin seems to do it. I don't know how I would have lived in the era before aspirin. I honestly believe I would be crippled.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

LGA - LaGuardia Airport, New York

Of the three New York airports, LaGuardia is generally the most convenient.

There are three city buses connecting the airport terminals to the subway system: Q33, Q48 and Q72. For a newcomer, any of them are fine. There is frequent round-the-clock bus service to the subway. The cost of the bus is $2.00 but the fare box only accepts passes or quarters. That means you MUST HAVE 8 QUARTERS on your person at the time you board the bus. The subway costs about $2 more, but machines there accept credit cards.

The other (wiser) option, if you are going to make more than a single trip, is to purchase a MetroCard pass at the Hudson newsstand at the airport. This will save you the cost of the transfer to the subway.

Here's some more advice on public transit:
Yahoo Answers
Official Bus Pass Info

An express bus to Manhattan costs $12, but I always go directly for the subway, since you probably have to take it at the other end anyway.

LaGuardia itself is a ho-hum airport. No free wifi. There are several separate terminals for each major airline. It is unlikely that you can comfortably spend the night here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The best website for booking hostel accommodations worldwide:

This site alone has totally revolutionized hosteling. They take tiny little fees for their service, and nearly everything about the site seems honorable. It renews my faith in technology!

VCE - Venice International Airport, Italy

A fantastic alternative to big European airports. On the mainland across the lagoon from Venice itself. You can buy transit passes here covering both the connecting bus to Venice and the Vaparetto boat system within the city (Venice's equivalent to the Metro).

There are two buses to the Piaza De Roma - the entry point to Venice. There is an express bus for about €4 and a local bus for about €2 (or free with the transit pass). Since the local bus takes only slightly longer than the express, and luggage is okay, the express bus seems pointless. The expensive Alaguna boat to Venice also seems totally pointless: Since you need to take a shuttle bus to reach it, you probably would be there already if you had just taken the standard bus.

NEVER buy any transit pass online before you arrive. It's probably a ripoff.

Venice itself is worth a day, but little more. It's kind of like Disneyland: It gets tired fast. There is a Left Luggage office at the airport, so you can leave you luggage there after your flight, tour Venice for the day, then come back for your luggage in the evening.

For cheap lodging, you probably want to stay on the mainland. I found adequate hostel lodging at Camping Jolly, accessible via my transit pass. (See

MAD - Madrid Barajas International Airport, Spain

VERY convenient airport, directly connected to the subway system. Fare is slightly higher than the city fare: about €2 (2008).

CDG - Charles de Gaule Airport, Paris

This appears to be the principle entry airport into Paris, at least for low-cost flights. A shuttle tram connects the 3 terminals. Direct train to Paris Gare du Nord for €8.40. (There is both express and local service, so be sure you get on the express train.) Train takes about 30 minutes, and departs from Terminal 2 and 3. The TGV also stops here.

If I needed a place to secretly camp, I would take the train one stop to the Villepint station, which is in the middle of a big, wild forest park. You can easily and discreetly camp here in darkness only, although the area is exposed during the day. If you stop at Villepint and then continue to Paris, the total fare is nearly the same.

You need to allow plenty of time to depart from CDG. The main bottleneck is passport control, which took me about a 45 minute wait on a low-traffic day. (Check-in for international flights closes one hour before flight time, but even that might not be enough time for you to get to the gate.)

FLL - Fort Lauderdale International Airport

A good alternative to Miami International Airport for getting to South Florida. The two airports are basically interchangible because of a cheap commuter train linking the two. To get to the train from FLL, you must take a shuttle bus to the station, since the distance is too far to walk. The shuttle is free but takes a long time (20+ minutes). The fare FLL to MIA is only about $4.

FLL has free wifi. The areas beyond security close at night. This is not an airport where I would feel comfortable sleeping at night, but I did find a grassy area to sleep nearby (during darkness only).