My back has always been my weak spot, my Achilles’ heel if we’re going to mix metaphors. It’s hardly surprising as I’ve spent most of my adult life hunched over either a typewriter or a computer. I’m certainly not alone. Neil Summers, exercise physiologist and author of The Art of Backstretching has my measure when he writes: ‘Most of our adult days are spent flexed forward, crumpled in a forward bending position, hunched over our everyday tasks.’ He goes on to warn: ‘So insidious is this forward ‘pull’ of the head that we do not even notice it is happening. If we do not let our back perform the varied array of movements it is capable of, we condemn ourselves to a life of aches and pains.’
Dr Marek Szpalski, consultant in orthopedic surgery is even more blunt: ‘There is nothing wrong with the back, it is just being misused.’ He says that of the 80 percent of the population who will at some point suffer from back pain, about 90 percent will have no real structural problem. The answer, he says, is simple: ‘The back needs to move. The loads on the discs need to be relieved and the back muscles need to relax.’ Fine, but how do you do it?
There are two parts to the back equation: you can lie back and let someone else iron out your knots, or you can get up, get moving and do it for yourself. In my experience, a combination of the two is the best and only prescription for long-lasting success. See a ‘back doctor’ to determine any underlying causes and fix any obvious problems, then take your health in your own hands and practice good back-work on a regular basis. There are hoards of therapies which can give relief to suffering backs, but these are the ones I’ve personally found most useful.
THE BACK DOCTORS
Over the years I’ve tried numerous systems of back care but I keep coming back to osteopathy. It’s been a bumpy ride on occasions and nowadays I am very picky about who I allow to play with my spine. The first osteopath I saw scared the living daylights out of me. She was a tiny woman, about half my size but she flung me around like a baby. She crunched and cracked my spine so much I felt as if my head might start spinning round like poor Linda Blair in The Exorcist.
I’ve since discovered that osteopathy needn’t be a terrifying experience and not all osteopaths are crunch and crack merchants. The feeling of relief when you step off the couch of a good osteopath is peerless. You feel as if every vertebra had been coaxed into a state of ease.
It isn’t for everyone. You might well prefer the more clinical approach of chiropractic. But if you’re nervous of even the possibility of cracking and crunching then I’d recommend you look into the gentle forms of chiropractic such as McTimoney. I used McTimoney myself when I was pregnant (as standard manipulations are not recommended) and found it eased my back enormously.
I’ve also found two other systems incredibly useful. I had a car accident a few years ago and, although it was not serious, the shock had produced trauma in my spine. A session of Zero Balancing, a form of bodywork which works on the skeletal structure but also takes into account the energetic framework of the body, had incredible effects. Bowen Technique, a remarkably straightforward, no-nonsense system which hails from Australia, is also brilliant for giving instant relief. I’ve used it on several occasions when I’ve overdone things – such as an over-enthusiastic bout of gardening or carrying a heavy toddler halfway round the zoo – and it always sets me straight.
LEARNING GOOD POSTURE
Good posture sounds boring but it can be the key to a happy back. I started my journey with the Alexander Technique. Devised by Frederick Alexander, an Australian born in 1869, it’s a gentle process which aims to ‘undo’ the bad postural habits which put our backs in misery. It’s taught in ‘lessons’ by ‘teachers’ and you really do feel as though you are back at school. Basically you are taught how to use your body – you spend hours learning how to sit, walk, lie down, pick up a bag etc. It works brilliantly well if you have the patience to learn it and apply it but I have to say it was just too boring for me and I gave up before I really saw the benefits.
The Feldenkrais Method is a bit more dynamic – it has been described as a way to ‘find the cat in you’ – teaching effortless movement through improved mind and body co-ordination. It’s the secret behind the poise and control of countless actors and dancers; the magic ingredient that can give sportspeople the edge in improving their performance or fine-tuning their game. Many of the exercises will take you back to childhood so be prepared to leave your inhibitions behind as you roll on the floor.
There’s nothing particularly fun about the Mezieres Method but it’s one of the most extraordinary therapies I’ve ever tried and, were I to live in London, I would undoubtedly sign up for a course.
The method is well-respected in its native France where it has been quietly revolutionising bodywork for the last forty years. Mezieres is no easy ride. It involves intense, painstaking work by both practitioner and patient. Practitioners say you can often get rid of pain in one session but it will never be longlasting unless you work hard to correct the cause of that pain. Correcting the cause involves literally unravelling the distortions of the body – it’s a little like slowly and patiently taking the kinks and knots out of a badly twisted rope and stretching it so it lies smooth and flat once again. Like a rope that has been wound for a long time, the body fights against being straightened and stretched. Put one part in place and another bounces out of line. As I lay on the floor being pulled and pummeled into shape, I felt just like an overstuffed packing case – push one bit down and something else bulges out. It was extraordinarily hard but by the end of the session I felt like an entirely different woman and my back was almost cooing with delight.
MOVE YOUR SPINE
Exercise is about the best present you can give your back. Choose something which you really enjoy – it need not be high-octane aerobics, walking or swimming are both excellent for the back (but do warm up properly and stretch before and after your session). However there are two systems which are tailor-made for stretching your spine.
Pilates has really sprung to fame – and deservedly so. The method works with the use of resistance – using either equipment with tensioned springs, gravity or your own body weight. It is considered to be one of the safest forms of exercise ever devised and is regularly recommended by osteopaths and physiotherapists.
Pilates uses flowing, controlled movements with specific breathing patterns to improve both co-ordination and muscle stamina. Every movement is carefully monitored to ensure you are using the correct muscles in precisely the correct way.
If you don’t have access to a Pilates studio then yoga is just as good an option – in fact many say even better. I’ve been practicing yoga on and off for years (generally more off than on) and I know for a fact that when I’m in one of my yoga phases my back smiles. The deep stretching reaches every part of the spine, and all the muscles which support it. Even just a few postures at the end of the day are enough to switch off the stress and let the vertebrae breathe.
Back pain is an almost totally preventable health problem. Take the time to be kind to your back, and it will certainly be kind to you.
GOOD POSTURE – THE BASIC RULES
STANDING: Think about standing on both feet. That might sound strange but most people actually slouch to one side, putting their weight on one leg which puts them out of balance.
- Tuck your bottom in and pull your stomach in so you are using your muscles almost like a girdle to hold yourself in. This provides good support for the lower back.
- Bring your chin in. Most of us poke our chins out far too far. The head should be balanced with the chin tucked in.
WALKING: Take even strides: some people pull themselves along, overusing their hamstrings (the back of the thighs); others lean forwards and overstride.
- Keep your balance: we are designed to balance on one leg after the other. Don’t throw your weight around.
- High heels can throw the pelvis forward which, in turn, will throw the whole body out of alignment. Eventually this will cause shortening in some muscles, which could lead to back pain. Low, well-cushioned shoes are best for everyday wear. It’s fine to wear high heels for special occasions but just don’t wear them all day, every day.
SITTING – FOR WORK: You should be seated with your knees lower than your pelvis. The seat should be high enough for you to relax your shoulders, leaving your arms at a ninety-degree angle to your desk. If the chair has arms, they should be low enough to fit under your desk.
- If you use a screen at work, your computer should be on a stand rather than on the desk, so that you can look directly at it, rather than down towards it. Make sure it is placed directly in front of you, rather than off to one side.
SITTING – TO RELAX: Slumping in front of the television may feel comfortable but it’s the worse possible position for your back. You should have a reasonably firm support behind you – a firm cushion will help.
- If you’re watching TV, you should be directly facing it with your head balanced. Don’t twist. If you’re reading a book or magazine, lift it up towards you rather than bending over your lap.
SLEEPING: A good mattress is essential. Too soft and the curves of your back sink in and reinforce bad posture – but equally too hard can be uncomfortable.
- Choose your pillow carefully – it needs to be malleable enough to mould to the curves of your neck. There are specialist pillows on the market which work well. Equally you could roll up a hand towel and place it inside your pillow case to provide a good support for your neck.
- Check your position: it’s fine to sleep on either your side or your back, but watch out if you sleep on your front with your head turned to one side. It twists the upper neck and can create imbalance.
WHAT TO AVOID
Certain movements and practices will play havoc with your back. These are the main ones to avoid.
- The heavy shoulder bag. The weight of the bag won’t (as you may think) pull your shoulder down – you will be pulling up your shoulder. As a consequence your body will overbalance and twist to compensate. Try a rucksack or, at the very least, keep shifting arms when carrying heavy bags.
- The phone shrug: clutching the telephone between your ear and shoulder may free your hands but can result in ‘telephone neck syndrome’, a form of repetitive strain syndrome which can cause searing pain between the shoulder blades. If you spend most of your day on the phone, use a headset.
- The reversing rick: many people suffer injuries when reversing their cars. The tendency is to pull the head back sharply and jerk the neck around. Instead, try dropping the tip of your nose towards your shoulder and then turning it while imagining your shoulder lengthening.
- Post-exercise trauma: many people come unstuck after vigorous exercise. Good posture after vigorous sport is very important because all your muscles will be warm and pliable. A lot of people tend to slump in the changing room. Stand up and walk about instead.
- The hip bend: never pick up anything by twisting and bending: always squat before lifting.
McTimoney Chiropractic: http://www.mctimoney-chiropractic.org
Bowen Technique: http://www.bowen-technique.co.uk
Alexander Technique: http://www.stat.org.uk