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September 30, 2011

A Bad Back is a Painful Thing

by Val Reynolds
Orange tulips

© Pintail

Janet ruefully writes about her Back. A bad back. Something a lot of us suffer from. We are all in a search to soothe, relieve, strengthen, our back. The back is our weakest part of our structure and as Janet says, once it goes, there’s not going back. This is how it is for Janet.

The world is divided into two kinds of people; those with Backs, and those without. And before you sigh and turn to another feature, let me remind you that you could find yourself in the other camp at any time and without warning. And once you’re in that camp, you’re there for life.

For me, it all kicked off at the age of around 40 when I was slim and supple, and attended a weekly two hour yoga class taught by an inspiring teacher. I don’t know what mischievous yogic demon persuaded her to introduce her class of middle-aged mothers to the splits, but one fateful day this is what she did. To my great joy, and very short-lived sense of smugness, I was pretty successful and went home determined to keep practising, though quite what I thought mastering the splits would do for my life, I don’t know.  But sheer stupidity led me to think that I could safely attempt at 7.30 am the next day what I’d done previously at the end of a long series of stretches. The pain as I tried to sink into this extreme position was excruciating, and my 40 years of not having a Back had ended. I soon learnt to tell no one how I’d hurt it as the looks of incredulity followed by badly concealed amusement spoke volumes.

So from then on life changed, as it does for all Back sufferers. Because you, the owner of a Back, are constantly searching for the ultimate goal – a permanently painfree back – your antennae are always on the alert for some new and amazing therapy. Your address book is full of chiropractors and physios, while your postman is at risk of developing a Back himself due to the volume of books on Back Care that you’re ordering,

Then you discover a book called You Can Heal Your Life and find that the cause of your problems might not be physical at all, but a reflection of your financial anxiety, or of feeling unloved and unsupported. You pass some of this information onto your partner who takes instant offence and moves into the spare room – where he’d been thinking of going anyway as he’s fed up with falling over the arsenal of back support devices littering the bedroom (Tens machines, magnetic blankets, etc) and with the hour which you now need to prepare for bed every night; gentle yoga postures followed by a period of meditation while lying on the floor, aromatherapy oils burning to help your spine to absorb new energy.

Travelling is well nigh impossible unless accompanied by someone strong who can lift all your suitcases as well as their own, and who hasn’t by now lost all sympathy for you. And when/if you reach your destination, well, hotel beds! Almost without exception, hotel beds are soft enough for that neurotic princess with the pea phobia, and provide no support for aching joints. If you don’t have the nerve to ring beforehand to ask them to provide a stiff board to be placed under the mattress, resign yourself to sleeping on the floor. Don’t take offence if your partner appears to be delighted as this means he gets a nice bed all to himself after weeks of being condemned to the tatty old spare bed. After all, he’s resigned now to the total lack of sex since your Back injury. Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that?

Not only is your sex life non-existent but your social life dwindles. Shopping – of the recreational kind – becomes a challenge. How long will my Back hold out while I try on new clothes? More importantly, how will my best friend react when I have to leave her alone to try things on while I retreat to the coffee shop to rest? You could of course take a leaf from the book of another friend – also a Back sufferer – who simply looks for a quiet part of the store, and lies on the floor! This might just work in Liberty’s or Selfridges where they’re used to eccentrics, but I wouldn’t recommend trying it in Primark in Oxford Street.

Concerts and films? Forget about what’s on; what’s important is how good the seats are. People with proper backs don’t understand this. Their thinking is that if you’re sitting down then you’re resting and your Back is OK, but those of us in the other camp know a bad seat is worse than no seat at all. And sometimes it’s impossible to tell good from bad at first, but slowly the truth reveals itself, and you find you’re starting to wriggle, searching for support for the lower Back. You find it and relax, but several minutes later you’re wriggling again because now there’s no support for the upper part of your Back. Eventually you come upon a way of sitting that suits all your Back – bliss! – until you realise that a serious pain is developing in your buttock and down your leg. To alleviate this you slide your hand underneath your buttock to cushion it from the hardness of the seat and stretch out your leg and this works for a few minutes until your shoulder begins to hurt due to being twisted, and you’re contorting yourself in your seat as your calf muscle has developed cramp. By now you’ve thoroughly infuriated the people sitting next to you and behind you, and you have to annoy them still further because you can’t stand sitting for a moment longer and have to get out. But you can’t leave without your handbag which is somewhere on the floor, so you have to bend down to feel around for it which of course hurts your Back, so gasps and little groans are added to the rustling noises which you’re already making. Heads are now turning in all directions to identify the source of the disturbance, and a chorus of “tuts” and indignant mutters accompanies you as you limp along the row of seats, invariably tripping over outstretched feet. Your partner, unable to withstand the embarrassment, has remained in his seat pretending to be unaware of what’s going on, his face a picture of serious concentration.

Will I ever get better? you think to yourself after months of this. Well, I can say with some certainty that my days of doing the splits were over before they really started, and I’ll never be able to dig the garden again, but with care I can manage a fairly normal life, most of the time. You might be able to do almost everything you did before, but Backs have long memories. One day, probably when you least expect it, the Back will be, er, back.

Back Books

Back Sense by Dr Ronald Siegel, Michael H Urdang and Dr Douglas R Johnson is a selfhelp programme that I can recommend. The cycle of Pain-Fear-Tension-Inactivity-Pain is explained clearly. I wouldn’t accept for some time that pain didn’t necessarily mean that I should rest, but gradually came to notice that after a day of resting, I usually had more pain. Dr Siegel was himself immobilised for some time with back pain, so understands what we go through.

The Body Control Pilates Back Book by Lynne Robinson is also good, though I’d suggest consulting a qualified Pilates instructor before embarking on some of the exercises.

Janet Hamer, Contributing author

We would like to hear of readers’ experiences of a bad back and anything they found gave them relief. Just email

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