Did you know that 62% of UK adults experience chronic back pain? That’s more than half the UK adult population! Pretty shocking statistics, don’t you think?
My theory is that the human body has a design flaw. Firstly, I don’t believe we were designed to stand upright. Why would the heaviest part of our bodies – our head – be at the top and not further down the body? Of course, humans didn’t start off our evolution being bipedal. We began on all fours. Perhaps we are physically and bio-mechanically, better suited to be quadrupeds.
When it comes to our spine, it’s mostly supported by other, strong supports, like our ribs and pelvis. However, the cervical (neck) and lumbar regions of our spine, only have muscles supporting them. If these muscles are not strong enough, they aren’t going to do their job effectively. These ‘unsupported’ joints will therefore suffer. Muscles, tendons and ligaments need to work harder to do their job and if they aren’t, then they will become damaged as will the joints they are meant to support.
Obesity is now on the increase (61.7% of UK adults are classed as obese). If you consider the extra stress a large abdomen will put on an already ‘at risk’ lumbar area of a back, it is a recipe for disaster. When you take all this into consideration, it’s no wonder there are so many people who suffer from chronic back and neck pain. If the human body were a machine and I were a CEO, I’d send the design engineers back to the drawing board.
However, we can’t change the design of the human body. So, what’s the alternative? We must strengthen the supporting structures to maintain our structure – like the tent pegs and guy ropes holding up a tent. Without the pegs and guys, the tent won’t stay upright.
I have suffered from a ‘bad’ back since I was a teenager. I was plagued with sciatica when I was 17-18 years old and each time I would get up from sitting down, the shooting pain down my left leg was unbearable.
Do I know what contributed to my back issue? With hindsight, I believe that the trauma I suffered when I was knocked down by a car at 11 years old was the initial cause. I was hit on my left side, and my left leg took all the impact. I fractured my femur and was in hospital for 6 weeks. So, why did the symptoms not surface until I was 18?
Well, as a child I was always active. I rode ponies regularly since I was about 9. I was lucky enough to have had the loan of or owned a pony, up until I was 16. I was riding most days of the week. Add into that, grooming, mucking out, cleaning tack, lugging hey and straw bales around, I was, no doubt, quite strong.
At 17, I moved onto riding horses. For a short while I rode out for a racing stable. Young, skittery thoroughbred race horses. Which was very exciting and I loved it. However, the frequency of my riding reduced. From having been an active and physically strong person, my fitness and strength was now reduced. During my riding ‘career’, I had some horrendous falls, mostly at speed. It’s a miracle I didn’t break anything. These falls on top of the earlier trauma of being hit by a car, on top of the now reduced strength in my muscles, is why I believe, my back problems started.
My 20’s went by with no back problems that I can recall. Then, at 29, pregnant with my daughter Erin, I had a very difficult and long labour. However, my beautiful little baby was born after 23 hours of labour. I’ve no doubt, pregnancy and then the long labour, contributed to my chronic back pain.
In my mid - late 30’s I started riding again. At about the same time, I began running – training for 6-mile leg in a relay in the Belfast Marathon. My training was going well. I gradually increased my distances and started doing hills. Then, one afternoon after running, I was in a rush. Instead of doing my usual post-run stretches, I got straight into my car and drove off. The following day, my achilles was agony. I tried running and couldn’t and stretches didn’t help. Fortunately, at that time, I was working in a physio and sports injury clinic. The diagnosis was that the issue was coming from my lower back! Well, how on earth can a sore achilles possibly be coming from my back? However, the physio explained that the nerve feeding the achilles was becoming stuck within it’s sheath and not gliding it as it should from my lower back. She did some neuro leg stretches and worked on mobilising my lower back. Amazingly, it did seem to help. Enough that I was able to run my leg in the relay. It was very uncomfortable, and the last mile was mostly a hobble rather than a run. But, despite the pain, the adrenaline got me over the finish line.
Two years later, I decided to put a team together to do another relay. I had been attending the gym regularly and certainly felt fit enough. However, gym work and road running are two completely different things. Again, I suffered injury. This time my back and this time, I couldn’t do my run. I had to get a replacement.
The following 5 – 6 years seemed to pass injury free. Until 7 years ago. I was sailing with my brother and my mum, at an annual regatta. I had been sailing regularly – once or twice a week during the summer sailing season for about 3 years. I started off in the cockpit, then progressed up to doing the ‘foredeck’, which involves getting up to the pointy end of the boat, to attach the spinnaker sail, then launch it. The spinnaker is the big coloured sail you see at the front of boat. This huge sail makes you go faster. As we were leaving the marina, I was asked to hoist the mainsail. Not something I’d ever done because usually someone else did that job. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to get it to the top and I was hoisting it up the mast, I felt a clunk in my back. I knew straight away that I’d done something severe. However, I carried on, took some paracetamol, had a few beers (as you do) and we won the race. The next day, I couldn’t get out of bed. Ten days later I was to start a new job in St George’s hospital. So, I spent most of the next few days lying on my back, watching golf. I’d never watched golf before – I’d always thought it was incredibly boring, but this was the British Open and I was totally glued. I’m a convert now.
Amazingly, after rest and doing some stretches, I was able to start work in St Georges. I was still having pain but seemed to be able to manage ok. Eventually, the pain went completely but that injury has never really healed. Like all the previous injuries, I’ve not allowed the injury to fully heal and have gone back to doing things too quickly. My job is very physical. I bandage and lift heavy legs. I massage thickened tissues to break down fibrosis. I help others who suffer with muscle pain and discomfort. I give advice to my patients on how to avoid further injury and get annoyed if they don’t follow my advice. Do I listen to my own advice? No! And over the past 7 years, since that severe strain out sailing, I now have regular ‘flair-ups’. Although none so severe as the most recent. I haven’t done strengthening exercises for my muscles and while I’m fit (I cycle, walk and do yoga), the muscles supporting my lower back, are not strong. I’ve had the warning signs and now I’m paying the price.
A week ago, I was playing tennis - ten days after having to take a day off work because my back was sore. However, it seemed fine that day and I was playing well. After hitting a back stroke, I knew straight away that I’d done something awful. I couldn’t walk unaided. I had to get driven home and since then, I have been completely laid up. It’s now a week later and slowly, I’m getting back to ‘normal’. The pain has reduced, and today I was able to go for a short walk. However, I’ve had to take the week off work and am considering doing the same next week because this time, I am determined to allow this injury to heal properly. I’m going to a specialist back physiotherapist on Monday and I will do the rehab and strengthening exercises so that this doesn’t happen again. I need to put my health first, so that I can continue to do the things I love with no further risk of injury. I hope you too look after your back. I wouldn't wish on anyone the pain I've been through.
For tips on how to look after your back, click HERE