23.7% of people reading this have no idea what “lumbago” is.

Last Saturday I sneezed and then I couldn’t move. That might sound strange to some, but I’m guessing a fair few of you (some sources suggest about 51.2%, though at least 37.6% of statistics are made up on the spot) have had a similar experience once or twice in your lifetime. Here’s the likely familiar story:

I was standing at the bathroom sink, calmly brushing my teeth and lightly stretching out the aching muscles in my low back, which have had the tendency to occasionally get a little sore ever since my second pregnancy (substitute “football injury,” “years in the circus,” or “shark attack” as may be appropriate for you). As always seems to happen at the most inconvenient times, I felt a powerful sneeze coming on. With toothbrush in hand and with my mouth full of foamy toothpaste, there was little I could do to brace myself for it so I went with it the best I could. And then the little ache in my back that had been my slightly bothersome companion for several days must have exploded or something because the nuisance ache became something altogether different. It became a screaming knot of angry pain.

So there I was, bent over the sink in front of a toothpaste covered mirror, yelling for help because I couldn’t so much as spare a supporting hand to cup a little water and rinse my own mouth without the risk of fainting from the effort.

Luckily I was not home alone at the time and my husband soon came to my rescue. He gently cupped water to my mouth to rinse the toothpaste (ah, true love!), and supported me in such a way that I could slowly and painfully shuffle through the bathroom doorway and to a place where I could sit. He fetched me ibuprofen and a heating pad, and to his credit, he didn’t even laugh at me all that much.

If you’ve been in a similar situation (and at least 68.4% of you probably have), then you know that the first thing that goes through your mind when something like this happens is: OW! Next is that list of things you absolutely must get done that have now become impossible. And finally you realize that the pain is so bad you really can’t think what to do about it.

If you lived at least a hundred years ago, the answer would be simple. You’d get yourself some gin.

Franciscus Sylvius (1614-1672)
Franciscus Sylvius (1614-1672) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gin is nothing more than a simple grain alcohol, flavored with juniper berries and whatever other aromatics one might fancy. Credit for its invention is usually given to a Dutch physician and chemist by the name of Franciscus Sylvius who, in the 17th century, was among the first to suggest that chemical reactions might actually have a great deal to do with the way the body functions. Sylvius was hopeful that gin could relieve stomach discomfort. The medicine soon caught on as a treatment for all sorts of pains, including lumbago (the old-timey word for low back pain)

Another “doctor,” identified only as Dr. Sheldon in numerous advertisements from 1915 to 1921, capitalized on the alleged curative properties of gin by claiming that his gin pills could cure lumbago, rheumatism, gout, inflammation of the gall bladder, kidney stones, depression, nervous disorders, fatigue, and possibly even diabetes.

That gin could be used to promote health is not entirely without merit. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, British Royal Navy sailors regularly consumed a cocktail made with gin and lime as a good way to ingest the vitamin C necessary to prevent scurvy. British soldiers serving in India found that if they took the same cocktail and added quinine, their anti-malaria regimen became more palatable. And in the 1920’s and early 30’s, the United States used low quality homemade gin as a cure for Prohibition.

Gin didn’t always enjoy such a glamorous reputation, though. As the cheapest way one could attain alcohol in 18th century England, gin became the driving force behind a great deal of social problems throughout the country. This prompted artist William Hogarth to create his famous etchings, Beer Street and Gin Lane, which, along with the writings of Henry Fielding, demonstrated that fine, upstanding citizens drink a lot of beer.

Combined image of Beer Street and Gin Lane

Their efforts helped pave the way for the Gin Act of 1751 and forever tainted the reputation of gin in England which may, in fact, be the reason that the otherwise suave James Bond knows so little about gin that he insists on having his martinis shaken, which those who do know a thing or two about gin, will consistently tell you is a big mistake. In Bond’s defense, though, he is under a lot of pressure between

A gin martini, with olive, in a cocktail glass.

mastering the use of all kinds of newfangled gadgetry, skydiving with the queen, and making sure his tie is straight.

But even if the aromatics in the gin are bruised and Bond’s martini is essentially ruined, it doesn’t appear that he is among the 87.3% of the population that suffers from lumbago. Maybe gin has curative properties after all.

In recent years, gin has resurfaced as a remedy for arthritis and joint pain. Though at this point completely unsubstantiated by any scientific study, rumor has it that raisins soaked in gin can offer pain sufferers a great deal of relief. The recipe is simple. Apparently all you have to do is soak your raisins in a small amount of gin and then let the gin evaporate completely before storing your homemade miracle cure in a covered dish in your fridge. Then eat nine of these raisins every day and you’ll be pain free.

Of course since at least one “reliable” Internet source on which you can find this miraculous recipe also mentions that it takes about a week for all of the gin to evaporate and your raisins to be ready, I didn’t think this would be a good option for me. As I sat, unmoving, fighting tears and wondering how I could see my way through the pain enough to function at least a little bit, my need seemed too immediate for the gin raisin cure.

Instead, I opted for a more modern approach: a little heat, some stretching, a lot of ibuprofen, and some doctor-prescribed muscle relaxant at bedtime. Now almost one week later, I am happy to report that
without even a drop of gin (which, in case you didn’t know, should NEVER be combined with muscle relaxant) I am once again functioning more or less normally.

I’m not ready to run a marathon or anything (not that I ever would), but life among the 95.2% of the population that suffers from occasional lumbago, is definitely looking up.

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5 thoughts on “23.7% of people reading this have no idea what “lumbago” is.

  1. Good question, probably worthy of further research. Lumbago is still in fairly common use, particularly among some of our more old-timey folks. I can’t really find the parallel terminology for upper back pain. Phlegmasia is an 18th and 19th century term for inflammation. Maybe that could work?

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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