Vagabond Vertebra


WEARE HOLBROOK has written many light articles for news syndicates and magazines. A former Iowan, he now lives in Hartsdale, New York.

Now that the flying saucer has been debunked, perhaps the skeptics will investigate the mystery of the slipping disc. Is it a medical hoax, or a figment of the X ray, or a social alibi, or what? Has it supplanted the allergy as an excuse for not doing what you don’t want to do?

In the days of vaudeville, Dr. Rockwell’s anatomy lecture featured a denuded banana-stalk to represent the spine, and his statement that “your head sits on one end and you sit on the other” appealed to my adolescent sense of humor. The banana-stalk was reassuringly solid and in no danger of falling apart. So was my spine.

It wasn’t until one of my high school friends came back from Davenport, Iowa, as a doctor of chiropractic that I realized what a delicate mechanism lay between my shoulder blades, He told me about the vertebrae, and the cartilage between the vertebrae, and the nerves cushioned within the cartilage, and how all the ills of mankind may be traced to the impingement of the vertebrae on the nerves — a condition which can be remedied only by an “adjustment,” and not just one adjustment but a series of about twenty.

That was a revelation to me. I realized that my spine was not a Rockwellian banana-stalk Gibraltar; it was a Dagwood Bumstead sandwich without a single skewer of stability. For several years thereafter I walked carefully, as if about to spill. My only exercise was a course of mail-order lessons in “Spine Motion” by Hobart Bradstreet, in which one gave oneself a sort of chiropractic treatment by standing on all fours and twisting the torso. Among other things, the exercises would make me “virulent,” and if I hadn’t looked it up in the dictionary I might still be doing them today.

“Sacroiliac” was another new word that swept into my ken at about that time. Like most newspaper readers, I first learned of it when it forced Helen Wills to cancel a tennis match. It seemed only right that if a beautiful young lady must suffer, her affliction should have a melodious cadence which suited her much better than, say, the clumping syllables of “lumbago.”

The photogenic Miss Wills made her ailment almost as popular as her eyeshade. Strictly speaking, the sacroiliac is an area at the base of the spine; everybody has one. But the term became synonymous with the trouble, and sympathy-seekers said, “I have sacroiliac,” just as they now say, “I have sinus” — an assertion equal in profundity to the announcement “I have kidneys.”

One day about five years ago our dachshund suddenly sat down (a change of posture which, in a dachshund, is scarcely visible to the naked eye) and refused to get up again, even for chopped round steak. He seemed paralyzed from tail to midriff, and we suspected poison. But the vet who examined him assured us we had nothing to worry about. Our little darling merely had a slipped disc, which a few days’ rest, would put right.

That’s the first time I had ever heard of the thing, but the vet said that dachshunds have been slipping discs for years; it is an accident to which they are peculiarly prone — and supine — because of their streamlined construction. Since then almost everybody I know has, or has had, a slipped disc. Sometimes the slip is temporary; sometimes it is a chronic or LP disc. But in every case the recommended treatment seems to be the same: a bed board.

When sociologists referred to “the softening influence of modern civilization” I had always assumed that they were speaking figuratively. It never occurred to me that they meant my mattress. However, the inner spring is now regarded as one of the most insidious factors in our spinal disintegration. Adapting itself to each whimsical contour and yielding amiably to every pressure, it is like a doting relative who always lets us have our own way; our bodies become spoiled brats, following the line of least resistance.

A bed board changes all this by injecting an element of Spartan discipline into the business of relaxation. Sags and slumps are ironed out. The spine learns what is the shortest distance between two joints — and learns it the hard way.

Only an Oriental fakir would voluntarily sleep on a bed board. It is a prescribed remedy for the malaise caused by wayward vertebrae, and it operates on the theory that you won’t notice a localized pain so much if you are made thoroughly uncomfortable all over. The effectiveness of this treatment is supported by the fact that no Indian papoose has ever complained of a slipped disc.