I am lying on the “rack” (my term) undergoing some automatic and machine-induced stretching for my back muscles. It is part of my therapy at the Providence Health Center. Neil is my Physical Therapist and he is trying to help me overcome some sciatica problems.

I have tried my own course of treatment because the problem has come and (sometimes) gone, for a number of years. First, I get on my back and move my arms and legs up and down, alternatively—left arm back, right leg up; right arm back, left leg up—about 15 times, like a dog learning how to swim. Next, I get down on the floor like I am going to crawl on all fours like a spanked puppy and do another routine—left arm forward, right leg kicked back, then the other side. Finally I scoot up as close to a chair as I can, put my legs up on the seat of the chair and stare at the ceiling for about five minutes.

It hasn’t been helping—the pain starts in the right hind-quarter and extends down the thigh to the calf of the leg. When it is severe—most often when shopping with Joice—I have to sit down. Lately, I have been doing a lot of sitting. I decided it would be better to see someone who actually knew what they were doing–and, preferably, had worked with dogs.

Neil, my therapist, has been very helpful. We started with a discussion about what was happening in my back and how the sciatic nerve was running from my vertebrae, down through the hip bone and into the leg. A six foot skeleton was positioned in front of me so that Neil could trace the journey of the painful nerve. The skeleton was old and tattered from showing so many people his bones, but I was old and tattered too, so I didn’t mind.

There were a number of contortions that Neil has discovered over the years and each is designed to make you say “ouch.” There were different positions—on my back, left side, right side, and stomach—from which Neil could easily find the “soft” spots—the “ouch” spots. Of course I was not going to say “ouch” out loud, just a grimace or a groan occasionally to let him know that his discovery techniques were working.

There are now five main exercises for me. I am sure they have scientific names, but here is how the layperson can remember them: 1) the belly button lift, which is meant to firm up the abdominal muscle which, I found, is really part of a band that runs right around to my rump (on both sides). Lifting your belly button is not as simple as it sounds—mine had been buttoned a long time and resisted. Gradually by poking my forefinger into the belly button to the second knuckle, holding my breath, and thrusting upward like I was about to puke, it worked. I was doing belly-button pushups; 2) the belly-button and thigh lift, which is meant to hurt everything—all at once—from the butt to the calf. The instructions were 2 x 5 or 1 x10 and hold for at least 2 seconds. I lifted each leg straight up level to the opposite knee (which was bent) and hold it until I said “uncle”; 3) the bottom-rise, where I slightly raise my butt and hold it until I decide to breathe. That is also 2 x 5 or, if still able to breathe, 1 x10.

However, in between the belly-button lift and the bottom rise I was to take the yellow pliable plastic strap and, with the ends looped around a door knob, pull to the side at a 90 degree angle and stand as if to knock the ball out of the park. On this one I had to switch-hit and do it the usual times. Once the door knob comes off the exercise is completed.

Finally, I get down on my back and pull my knees to the chest—or as close thereof that I can manage—and hold it for 10 seconds. I need to do 5-to 10 repetitions and then I am done.

But it is the “rack” that I want to describe, for it is the closest to voluntary torture or waterboarding that the therapists are allowed to go. Heating pads are placed where my lower back will lie, but first I am fitted with a large leather girdle—much like you see in pictures of gladiators—that is strapped around me and has two rip cords hanging out the bottom. The cords are attached somewhere on the machine—I can’t see it but I hear a faint hum—and I am given a small apparatus with a red button to push in case I want to claim nausea or go to the toilet. My knees are bent and propped over a type of saw horse, which is why I can’t see the machine.

The lights are dimmed and the machine begins to do its work—pulling the hip bone slightly out of the socket, then releasing it to its original position. Back and forth today, but tomorrow it just pulls it out and keeps it there. There is no pain—everything is numb and it is almost peaceful. The technician tells me that some people fall asleep. I don’t.

I call it the “rack”, not because it is painful or tortuous, but because with the lights dim and with me strapped in, I am reminded of the torture room in the Warwick castle, England, we once visited. I imagine that my captors want me to reveal my social security number and the name of my mother-in-law. Fortunately, I can’t remember either and the would-be assassins realize that I am worthless to them.

Just then Neil comes into the room, turns the lights on and unstraps me. “Careful now,” he says. “Feel a little woozy?” “No,” I reply, as I try to walk a straight line towards the door. “See you tomorrow.” I glance at the “rack” as I leave. It seemed to be smiling.

As I was walking out, the technician gave me a sheet of paper. It had another exercise that Neil had meant to give me yesterday. It is the “groin-hip bone raise,” where I first locate my hip bone and, all the time raising my belly-button firmly, move my knee so that it “fall outs” to the side some 6 or 8 inches. I repeat on the other side, 1 x 10, of course. I may need Joice to help me with that one.

Neil has creatively drawn a stick figure to represent each exercise and I am sure they will someday be on display at a local art center.

November 16, 2017