This blog is not necessarily directed at older backpackers like myself. It can apply to anyone, at any age. At 71 I am less bulletproof than I was fifty years ago, but I still find I can get up at dark-thirty and walk until sunset without too much discomfort. This comes from a constant effort to stay healthy, stay in hiking shape, pinpoint problem areas and work on them, and embrace common sense, lightweight backpacking methods, and gear.
My biggest problem over the years has been a nagging pain on my left side, upper trapezoid muscle. Occasionally, it feels like a hot poker branded into my shoulder blade. I can relieve it in a matter of seconds by stopping, dropping my pack, and massaging the trigger-point. This lasts about an hour until I have to go through the whole process again.
I’m not real big on doctors. I know I could spend a lot of money getting several medical opinions and sorting out the quacks from the real deal, but I decided to work on it myself using Dr. Google. I fix my car by watching YouTube, why not my body?
I am not trying to impugn all doctors, but as I said, I’m 72, so I have had some experience with them. The old joke is “What do you call a doctor that finished last in his class in medical school? Answer: DOCTOR!
Before I tell you what I discovered to solve my condition, let me give you an example of how going to a doctor may not be your solution.
I took a bad fall when I was 43 doing something really stupid. I was hiking at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. At a steep dune leading down to Lake Michigan, there was a sign that said, “480-foot drop, do not run down.” I ran down.
Late that day I ended up in the emergency room, meeting doctor No. 1. Besides extreme pain, I explained to him that my collar bone was sticking out about an inch on my right side. Now, I admit I have never been to med school, but that seemed to me to be a good clue that something was off-kilter. Dr. No. 1 had them X-ray me, prescribed pain pills, and sent me home to suffer.
The pain subsided in a week or two, but I had the weirdest symptoms. I had no strength in my right arm, I couldn’t lift anything over my head. Also, my shoulder blade would not stay in place, it would wing out instead of lying flat. It didn’t hurt so I let it go for a year or so.
Enter Dr. No. 2. I eventually sought a second opinion because of the lack of strength in my right arm. I went to a specialist. He explained that I had a “winged scapula.” He also diagnosed me with “Long Thoracic Nerve Palsy.” He said, “It’s like a drunk that falls asleep with his arm over a chair all night. It kills the nerve. It may regenerate itself, or it may not.” He then took an X-ray and sent me on my way.
Seven years after my fall, I was preparing to hike the Continental Divide Trail. I met a Chiropractor at a dinner party and he offered to sponsor my hike by giving my whole family 3 months of Chiropractic care. I showed up at his office the next day. I didn’t even get out of his lobby before he completely cured me. He asked if I had any particular issues. I said, “Ya, I have no strength in my right arm.” He cocked my arm up across my stomach, had me make a fist, stepped behind me, reached around, grabbed my fist, and adjusted me right there. I heard a pop and immediately had all the strength back in my right arm. He said my shoulder was out of joint. Which means my shoulder had been out of joint for seven years. So did Dr. No. 1&2 sleep through Shoulder Anatomy 101, or does M.D. stand for MisDiagnostics?
The moral of the story is “save some money and go to Dr. Google.
So how did I fix my burning upper trapezoid sensation? It took a few hours of sorting through YouTube quacks to pick out people who seemed to make sense in pinpointing my problem. As it turns out it wasn’t “Old Man Neck Arthritis.” It wasn’t misspent youth running down dunes. It turned out to be a very common problem that even young people suffer from, “Bad Posture.”
I spent 25 years as a writer hunched over a keyboard. It was a silent invasion of discomfort that slowly changed the muscle memory in my neck and back. The good news is, it didn’t take 25 years to retrain those same muscles. I found dozens of simple exercises to stretch and strengthen those muscles. Once conscious of the problem the solution was easy.
At an average base weight of 15 pounds, my pack with good food and water management seldom weighs over 25 pounds. Once I cured the upper trap burning sensation I could truly hike all day without stopping if I cared to. I am not suggesting you hike all day without a break, I am simply implying that getting to that point physically will make your backpacking so much more enjoyable.
If you have gnawing little muscle or joint grievances, don’t ignore them, tackle them immediately. There is always an underlying reason for every pain. Often there will be a simple solution. —Keep Smilin’