Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Back pain - medical interventions and surgery aren't always the answer.

Back pain is so common that we all know someone who has experienced it - if we haven't ourselves (Low Back Pain Most Common Musculoskeletal Disorder). And while back pain can be extremely distressing and debilitating, most back pain is really benign - meaning that it's not caused by anything serious.

When we're in the throes of pain, we can imagine what the problem may be: slipped disks, fractures in the spine, pinched nerves, and so on. But most of the time, it's never anything close to being that serious. Colleague Jill U. Adams also addressed the issue in a recent Washington Post article, Going to the doctor for back pain can be a slippery slope.

I've experienced back pain for the past 30 years since I injured my back while lifting a patient. Since then, I've had back pain off and on - sometimes severe, sometimes nagging. Because of my initial injury and the severity of the pain, I assumed I was re-injuring my back, perhaps causing more damage. Then, this past January, I was hit with back pain like I'd not experienced in 30 years. I was flat on my back, in agony, unable to do anything that I wanted to do.

Two years ago, I started going to the gym and also cycling in the summer. I lost about 30 pounds and the exercise did help me feel better overall. After a year and a half of this, I started yoga. While doing the yoga, my back started to get progressively more painful. At Christmas, I felt my back getting worse and on January 5th, agony hit.

I finally went to get it checked a month or so later and I underwent x-rays and a CT scan. Both showed that there was nothing mechanically wrong with my back. My vertebrae were in place, disks were fine. Nothing could be seen that could be the cause of such pain. So I asked for a referral to see a physical therapist. If it wasn't structural - it had to be muscular, I thought. And I was right.

My physiotherapist put me through a series of tests and determined that my back was perfectly able to move and turn as it should - but my muscles weren't allowing it to do so. My right side was significantly stronger than my left, causing my body to be unbalanced and working unevenly. It seems that when I started going to the gym, the stronger part (the right side) continued to get stronger, leaving my left side in the dust, strength-wise. For example, when she asked me to stand straight, facing forward, I did - or so I thought. What was really happening was that my feet were facing forward and my head facing forward, but my torso was turned to the right. I could do movements that relied on the right side (abdominal and back muscles) but the ones that needed the left side weren't as successful.

What caused the pain though? When I was doing yoga and participating in spinning classes, both activities force you to use both sides of your body as equally as possible. My left side didn't like that, the muscles got irritated, causing the pain.

I also saw the group's athletic therapist, who put me through even more movement tests. She agreed - I was physically able to do everything, but my muscles weren't allowing me to. So, between the physiotherapist who worked on my back and the athletic therapist who gave me tailored exercises (and a gym embargo of a few months), I worked those lazier muscles and forced my body to do what it was supposed to be doing.

The first few weeks didn't give me much relief. I was still in pain and maybe even achier than before. But after almost six weeks of work, I noticed last week that I had minimal pain, minimal aching - despite taking two four-hour flights and resuming some gym work. The physiotherapist said my body is more even and the athletic therapist said that my muscles were stronger and working more in synch than they had been. She was happy with the progress.

I still have work to do, but if this is what was the cause of my back pain all these years, I'm not happy that I waited so long to do something that should have been so obvious. Physical therapists are the experts in muscular movement - that is what they do all day. I should have thought to go that route a long time ago. But, it's not too late. At least now I know that when my back does hurt, unless I re-injure it, it is just muscle pain and not something more serious.

If you're experiencing back pain and there seems to be no mechanical cause, you may want to consider seeing if a physical therapist can be helpful. It may make all the difference.

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