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 longlasting 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 or Network Chiropractic. 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 three other systems incredibly useful. I had a car accident back in the day 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, 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. Dorn Method is another non-invasive back straightener that is worth investigating.
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 and Yoga are both superb forms of back stretchers. Pilates works with 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.
Yoga is another great 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 (providing you have no mechanical issues). Take the time to be kind to your back, and it will certainly be kind to you.
A longer version of this feature first appeared in Woman & Home magazine