Back pain: ‘I was only in my early thirties – but I felt like an old lady’
It was midway through a bout of over-enthusiastic floor-mopping that it first happened. I’d ignored the nagging ache blooming at the base of my spine and, then, suddenly – pouf: a sensation of something deep inside going awry; not a click, not a snap, just a hard-to-pinpoint signal that something’s gone quite wrong. Stubbornly, I fought it – attempting to get to the corner shop for sponges so I could continue my Saturday morning clean. When, 40 minutes later I was still shuffling homewards, clutching at walls and wincing with every movement, I had no choice – once finally indoors again – but to lie down for several days, unable to manage so much as reaching for the remote control without help.
It’s hardly an unusual story – backache affects a startling 28.3 million Brits – but what I didn’t know then was that, five years later, despite vast outlay and fruitless dabbles with everything anyone ever told me might work, I’d still be feeling the effects of that Saturday morning.
According to Dr David Delvin, who last year wrote Back Ache: What You Need to Know (Sheldon Press), “it usually it gets better on its own – unless you’ve displaced a disc”, which is often accompanied by pain down the back of the legs. “And even that can right itself, often in about six weeks,” he says, “though it can require surgery if it’s a serious disc lesion.”
Well, I didn’t have one of those, and in the immediate aftermath of “mopgate” it didn’t occur to me that I would never return to my former flexibility or that, despite only being in my early 30s, I would begin to clutch at my back and start making an awful “ouf” sound when I bent over, like an old lady. That I would struggle daily to get out of bed because everything had gone stiff overnight. That I would never be able to sleep comfortably on my stomach again. That I would be the one to hassle Health and Safety in the office for one of those disruptive “workstation assessments”, desperate to stop squirming and fidgeting my way through the day.
After it didn’t get better by itself, I assumed an osteopath trip or two would put me right. The first one I tried was clear on the problem. My posture: a new-found fondness for high heels had exaggerated my natural tendency to arch my back, reducing support for my spine by weakening my core muscles (something everyone in the back-pain club tends to have to get in touch with). But every sufferer has their own trigger.
“Lifting heavy weights, badly, is a very common one,” says Dr Delvin, “and most often it’s the lower back that goes because this is the area with most flexibility, along with the neck area. Sitting awkwardly is also often blamed,” he continues, “[in] car seats or office chairs. As is pregnancy and twisting awkwardly – from the front car seat to reach something in the back, say.”
Few back pain sufferers, however, seem to have the same – if any – cure. Though most, like me, have tried a few. So often, it’s one of life’s great unresolvable ailments. “People are always making wild generalisations about backache,” agrees Dr Delvin. “They come up with different theories as to what’s causing the pain, but there’s rarely any scientific evidence to prove it. It’s a difficult subject to research: it is a very complex part of the body. There are also a lot of people with a vested interest in promoting their own school of backache theory.”
Indeed, I found it confusing. For me, osteopath number one was just the beginning. What she had said made sense – and I was prescribed some follow-up stretching exercises and advised to lay off the stilettos. And yet the pain persisted. I put up with it until a severe relapse, at which point I tried a chiropractor, recommended evangelically by a friend (even those still suffering are prone to rave about the people they’ve paid £50-odd a session to, not to be cured). What’s the difference between a chiropractor and an osteopath? “Clickier,” my friend advised. “They’d each furiously deny similarities,” says Delvin, “but from my research the two disciplines seemed to have started out in very much the same way.”
Post clicks, the immediate pain passed but the nagging “ouf”-inducing ache remained, despite doing more stretchy exercises. I returned to osteopathy for purely geographic reasons, following yet another emergency. “Yoga,” she advised while kneading my shoulders (bucking the trend for the ubiquitous Pilates-for-back-pain advice). “The stretching will ease the pain, and it’ll do as much for your core muscles as Pilates.” It worked while I was in my yoga class and for a couple of hours afterwards. Surely that wasn’t all I could hope for? “Try memory foam,” she said on my next visit. “I know a guy who sells pure memory mattresses – not just the toppers. He has a severe spinal problem himself and swears by them.” I hated my new mattress – it was hot and so squidgy I could barely move. And my back still hurt.
“Orthotics,” advised osteopath number three, to whom I was referred by osteopath number two. “Yes, they are expensive,” she said (indeed, nearly £200 for a pair of posture-adjusting, custom-fitted insoles to wear in one’s shoes) “but I never see most patients again, which is a good sign.” Or possibly a sign of being so appalled at spending such money on something that has absolutely no effect that frustration keeps you away.
I tried massages (“you should have one every couple of weeks,” my masseuse said. She’s probably right – but at £55 a go, that’s unlikely to happen): sports massages; boyfriend massages; sitting on a yoga ball at work (too conspicuous); and a rigid foldy-uppy thing for my chair, bought from the classifieds of a magazine with a depressingly elderly readership. Every attempt brought hope of a miracle cure – the chance to return to my former, more youthful-feeling and bouncy self. With each failure, disappointment grew and despondency began to set in.
I mentioned this casually to an American woman I interviewed for a completely unrelated article I was writing last year. The piece was on NLP, neuro-linguistic programming – a sort of self-therapy and persuasion tool loved by the likes of Derren Brown, Paul McKenna and life coaches everywhere – and she worked for Richard Bandler, who co-invented the discipline. NLP gave me the willies, but, stuck at a three-day NLP conference in Orlando, I took advantage when, on mentioning my aches (I may have been fidgeting in my chair) my American NLP-er exclaimed: “You need to be ‘Perry-fied’!”
The eponymous Dr Ron and Dr Edie Perry turned out to be a husband-and-wife “bodywork” team, and part of the NLP entourage. Though trained as chiropractors, they specialised in something called the Feldenkrais Method, developed in the Seventies by an Israeli physicist, Moshe Feldenkrais, who, I discover, was a big influence on Bandler. NLP’s co-creator was impressed with the thinking behind Feldenkrais’s approach to treating a stroke patient with paralysis afflicting one side of his body.
The story sounded like a Biblical miracle, but – if true – there was logic in it: rather than using physiotherapy to coax the stiffened arm that was clutched across the patient’s chest back down to his side, Feldenkrais instead did the opposite: nudging the arm upwards. He figured the patient’s limb had frozen en route to the side of the brain in which the stroke had occurred, a natural reflex, and so simply helped the patient to complete that movement. On having done so, the arm then effortlessly dropped to his side. I don’t know what to make of the story, but am willing to give almost anything a go.
Instead of employing the chiropractic techniques they were trained in, the Perrys focus on reprogramming the subconscious to heal the body. It sounded suspiciously crystal-bashing. While I lie – surprisingly – face up, Dr Edie stands at my feet, Dr Ron at my head, and they both speak with soothing, positive words (distressing “negative” phrases such as “Ooh, that feels tight” or “This might hurt” are banned). They gently pull my skin – on my legs, feet and arms as well as my back – in such a way that it will, they say, communicate the necessary changes to my unconscious mind. Ron notes that one leg is slightly longer than the other and one side of my body is more mobile, which correlates to the side of my back that hurts. “Let’s do something about that,” he says reassuringly. Limbs are lifted gently and questions softly asked; improvements pointed out as they go. After 20 minutes or so, I’m asked to stand up. As I step off the bench I feel like I’ve moved from a ship to dry land, and nearly fall over. It’s an extraordinary sensation – like everything has suddenly been aligned. The pain, too, has gone. I bend over effortlessly. No “ouf”.
The next few weeks are spent showing off about my newly discovered physical verve. “Look what I can do!” I say, picking invisible things off the floor with grace. “Isn’t it amazing?” I’ve become evangelical too. And yet I’m confused as to how to explain what happened. Every time I try, it sounds, well, so unlikely.
And then, very slowly, the pain creeps back. Having enjoyed my taste of freedom, I am quick to Google the Perrys in the hope they might be touring Europe some time soon. No such luck. I call BackCare, in case they’ve heard of Feldenkrais. They haven’t, nor has Dr Delvin. I try a few more back experts, with no joy.
To my surprise, it is a council member of the British Osteopathic Association, Danny Williams, who finally says he knows all about it. “It’s not that obscure,” he tells me over the phone. “In fact, I’ve referred some of my patients to it – just as I’ve recommended others to yoga or the gym, depending on the patient. From my understanding it helps by guiding the body into optimal movement patterns. For example, if you have back pain, it teaches you how can you move without having back pain. It’s a rehab tool.”
Not such a freaky, niche practice after all, perhaps. Then I discover there is a British Feldenkrais Guild. I book a one-to-one session with a London-based practitioner – a former dancer whose profile says he used the method to improve his dance. He explains, quite logically, that after injuring my back – combined with being told that I arched it too much – I have made the common mistake of overcompensating with a stiff posture. I need more movement not less in my spine. I mention my hateful bed. “Does it stop you moving in your sleep?” he asks, before sensibly suggesting I might get rid of it, since I hate sleeping in it. He’s eminently practical and very soothing. I walk out with some tricks to practise and he says that five sessions should sort me out permanently. I really hope so.
What is the Feldenkrais Method?
* According to its UK Guild, Feldenkrais is “an educational method focusing on learning and movement, which can bring about improved movement and enhanced functioning”.
* The method is not a million miles from the Alexander technique, which also works on the whole body rather than isolating the problem area.
* It was developed by an Israeli physicist, Moshé Feldenkrais, who died in 1984; he developed the method over the course of his career, which also included engineering and judo instruction.
* It was Feldenkrais’s focus on the relationship between bodily movement and our ways of thinking, feeling and learning that shaped the formation of his practice, which he refined while successfully healing himself following an injury to his knee that threatened him with severe disability.
Back pain: ‘I was only in my early thirties – but I felt like an old lady’