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Six months ago contractor Richard Sheehe's back gave him so much pain, he had trouble tying his shoes. Now he boasts he can bend from the waist and touch his palms to the floor.

For this he credits a hard hat version of yoga, an exercise program using yoga techniques designed for people in the construction industry who, like Sheehe, "use our bodies like donkeys."

"I don't know a contractor who doesn't have a bad back," said Sheehe, who owns Napa Valley Construction in St. Helena.

"You carry all this weight, compressing your discs. Then you work until you can't anymore and end up having an operation, live on ibuprofen or just suffer."

But not this 54-year-old self-defined "yoga junkie," who claims, "I have no back problems. None at all.

"My macho male friends think it's a chick thing, but I don't care. Yoga is a preventive measure I will do the rest of my life."

Sheehe's guru is Allan Nett, who has 25 years in the construction business and 16 years as a certified Iyengar yoga instructor, a combo he used to create a program called YCI, or Yoga for the Construction Industry.

Nett says recruiting blue collar workers can be a hard sell, until they figure out it works.

"They think I'm going to make them wear spandex and get on a floor mat," said Nett, who renamed basic yoga positions to be more tool guy-friendly -- like "Plumb Bob," which others know as the mountain pose -- and inviting his students to keep their work boots on.

"Mainly my lure is the relief of pain," said Nett, who teaches weekly classes at Central Valley Builder Supply sites in St. Helena and Napa.

"Most construction workers are off balance. The body compensates but as one ages it becomes a problem," said Nett, who'd like to see insurance companies give a discount to contractors who have their crews stretch every day before going on the job. "I'd love to get hold of Arnold (Gov. Schwarzenegger) on that.

"So many worker comp claims are back related and most of them I bet are lower back," explained Nett, whose classes focus on shoulder stiffness, hip mobility, problem knees, neck and back pain. Plus lessons in basic anatomy.

"It's all connected. If your hamstrings are tight, then the hips won't move fluidly. If the hips aren't fluid, you'll have lower back problems. If you have back problems, then you'll have neck problems."

And you don't have to be a construction worker.

Common and debilitating chronic back conditions will affect 70 percent to 85 percent of Americans sometime in their lives, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Expensive problem

Back pain is the second-most-frequent reason for physician visits (the first being upper respiratory infections), the fifth reason for hospitalization and third-most-common reason for surgery.

Bad backs represent almost 22 percent of occupational injuries that require a person to miss work, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Most cases of back pain are mechanical, not caused by conditions such as inflammatory arthritis, infection, fracture or cancer.

We do a lot of it to ourselves.

"I know some people say the reason we have bad backs is because we walk on two feet instead of four," said orthopedic physician Gail Dubinsky.

But she blames it on lack of exercise and not practicing good body mechanics.

"When people say 'back problems,' most mean lumbar," the lower back, said Dubinsky. Lower back pain usually comes from "improper bending, lifting and twisting."

"We don't have a natural intelligence on how to lift and bend. We have to be taught those things. Unfortunately the first teaching moment is usually an injury."

Often a back injury seems to come on suddenly, as if you sneeze in the shower and your lower back goes out.

In truth, it's one of those "straw that broke the camel's back" moments, following longtime, cumulative back abuse.

"But people feel out-of-the-blue incapacitated," said Dubinksy. "It's horrible. People feel powerless when it seems so random."

Over 25 years of practice, Dubinsky has observed an increase in degenerative changes in younger people.

Increasingly younger patients

"Degenerative discs are as much a fact of life as gray hair and wrinkles, but I now see people in their 20s with three or four bulging discs in their neck already. We've always seen people like masons and iron workers with beat up bodies and bad backs, but now there's more a rash of sedentary and weekend warriors with problems.

"The message loud and clear is we have to exercise our backs," said Dubinsky, who produced a DVD called "Yoga for Gardeners" because even something as pleasurable as gardening "can be heaven for the soul, but hell on the body."

For general back health, she said, "you have to get people on the path of being physical," through varied exercises including yoga, tai chi, swimming, walking, dancing.

"Walking a little bit every day is a great way to start conditioning your back."

On top of that, she adds, "Eat good stuff. Get sleep. Drink more water. (Lumbar discs dry out with age.) Have a sane life."

Most acute back pain results from trauma to the lower back or from arthritis or other disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health. Trauma to the back can come from a sports injury, physical work or a car accident. Symptoms range from muscle ache to stabbing pain, limited flexibility and range of motion or an inability to stand straight.

Back surgery is needed in only a small percentage of people. Pain relievers and anti-inflammatory drugs can help, but most experts agree the goal is to strengthen the back to prevent recurrence of an injury by using good body mechanics, and keeping back muscles conditioned with exercise and stretching.

Mark Palter from Santa Rosa traces his back problems to his job as an emergency medical technician. Now 33, he struggled for seven years with "chronic, intense and debilitating back pain" and ended up having surgery in August after a disc blew, pinching a nerve and making his right leg "pretty much useless."

After his doctor recommended exercise to strengthen his lower back, Palter began working with a trainer to do Pilates, a torso-strengthening program that combines breathing, balance and stretching.

He's not cured. "Probably down the road I'm looking at disc replacement or fusion, but my body is just loving the exercise. It's almost a high."

Trainer Monica Anderson, who owns Tone studio in Santa Rosa, said lifestyle is a big back breaker.

"Look at most people on the computer, with their head forward and all the muscles straining to keep that head held up," said Anderson, who does her sitting on a large exercise ball.

"Think about how people sit in a recliner with the TV remote. Your bones are hanging off your pelvis, your stomach is bumped out. It's horrible on your spine."

Healthy backs, she said, need a mobile core that allows the spine to have a natural curve instead of flattening out. Her clients range from a young child with scoliosis to a 93-year-old woman who does Pilates to stay flexible.

Anderson said she can spot a back problem walking down the street.

"You see a woman whose stride is off, she's got a big handbag on one side and her shoe is getting worn on one side. She's the one who comes in and says she doesn't know what happened but her back hurts."

For Kendra McCoy it was a degenerative problem known as spinal stenosis, a pinching of the nerves in the spinal canal, that did in her back. Her physical therapist pointed her to Pilates, which McCoy said "has made all the difference in the world between thinking I'd be in a wheelchair soon and being able to function and exercise every day."

Exercise, exercise

McCoy, who owns Pearson and Co. catering in Santa Rosa, said, "I was having difficulty standing for a long time. I thought I was doomed, that this is the way it was going to be."

Now, in addition to Pilates, she does spinning and walking to keep her back healthy.

Airplane mechanic Annie Kolarich spent 22 years "wiggling into tiny places to fix things."

"It's the nature of the job," she noted. "Bending into little areas and lots of standing, lifting, climbing and running."

But she said, "Body parts wear out. You don't think it will happen. You think you'll be 30 forever. When you're younger you feel a pain and the next day it's gone."

Not so for the 56-year-old Sebastopol resident, who has a combination of disc problems and repetitive back strain.

She's rehabilitating herself through yoga, aquatic therapy, adaptive exercise class and massage along with acupuncture and chiropractic treatments.

Her hope is to avoid surgery and strong pain medication and get back to fixing airplanes.

"There's something about airplanes. The pilots call it aluminum fever. It's addictive," she said. "I would see the older workers bent over and having trouble with their knees. I never thought it would happen to me."

News Researcher Teresa Meikle contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Susan Swartz at 521-5284 or susan.swartz@pressdemocrat.com.

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