Mission ImBACKible – How do you fix chronic back pain and what if you can’t?

My mother has suffered with chronic back pain and sciatica for many years now. Sadly she still does.  

Her story is very similar to countless others. A story of multiple misdiagnoses and scans which showed little, if nothing, out of the ordinary. 

Ultimately the frustration over many years led her down the path of trusting a surgeon to remove one of her discs and then fuse two vertebra together.

It didn’t work.

In fact, it made matters worse. 

Forgetting the fat cheque that private surgeon took home, or the many painful and frustrating nights that followed, the happy ending to the story is this. 

My mum can do more or less everything she wants. She can stand. She can sit (although not for too long). She can walk. Her overall range of motion is good. She can pick up and hold her grandson. She can play with and read to him while sat in her lap. And she can do all of this without too much pain.

BUT.

She still suffers from chronic back pain.

She manages her pain by doing a number of daily mobility exercises, walking often and sitting less. When she does sit she uses a pillow for support (to watch tv or have dinner) and stands regularly to stretch. On top of this she occasionally goes swimming or attends a pilates class. She also takes pain killers to help her sleep through at night. All of this means she can still have a decent quality of life.

The main point is this though:

SHE MANAGES HER PAIN. Her pain has not been cured, but SHE HAS MADE PEACE WITH IT. She doesn’t complain about it or let it detract from her day. She simply gets on with life. 

Her acceptance, despite many years of fighting this frustrating, heart-breaking battle, is truly inspirational.

It’s an important lesson I mean to take with me as I attempt to solve/manage my own issues with back pain. 


A WORD OF WARNING ⚠️ 

(I should say, for those who are considering back surgery as an option to help cure their own back pain, proceed with caution!! Surgery should be the absolute last call of action and even then, you better be damn sure you have an accurate diagnosis. 

Peter Ullrich, an orthopaedic surgeon, has this to say,

“The number one determining factor whether or not a fusion surgery will deliver the desired reduction in pain is an accurate preoperative diagnosis, meaning a diagnosis that clearly identifies the underlying cause of the patient’s pain.

Identifying degeneration of other changes in the spine is not sufficient—the diagnosis needs to identify that those changes in the spine are actually causing the patient’s pain. Many people have a bulging disc, herniated disc, stenosis, and other issues with their spine, but no pain.

I can’t stress this point enough.”

If you’d like to know more please have a read of this article).


So what’s wrong with me?

A lot of things but let’s stick to the topic of my back for now. 

I injured my back early on while training for the London marathon in 2014. Instead of backing off though, I ran through it, repeatedly… Stupid, I know. 

Following that I attempted to run a half marathon in new shoes, a month out from the main event, during which something in the back of my right knee gave way… Stupid, I know.

I limped home and didn’t train again till I ran the actual thing. 

On race day I wore a compression top for my back and had both knees strapped. Despite feeling pain in both, I felt committed (having asked so many people to sponsor my brother and I), so I ran the London marathon anyway… Stupid, I know. 

(Side note: I should write a piece on how not to run a marathon). 

I finished in what was probably a record slow time for my age, but I finished! It was an unforgettable day and one that I cherish.

BUT.

It came at a price. 

The long term result is, I’ve suffered on and off with a variety of different issues related to the back and neck ever since. While it’s clearly been nothing serious, as multiple MRI scans have shown, my back has never truly healed either. 

More recently (a few weeks back to be exact), I managed to put my back out lifting weights, bringing on a fresh wave of lower back pain and sciatica that has, quite frankly, scared the shit out of me. 

What if it’s something serious? 

What if I never can never lift weights again? 

What if I have chronic back pain for life? 

What if, what if…. I, I, I… Me, me, me….

STOP!

Take a breath. 

Observe. 

Proceed.

After a long period of catastrophizing and feeling sorry for myself, its clear I’m in a dangerous position of falling down the rabbit hole again.

I need a plan.

So, here it is…

1) Start treatment with my PHYSIO. (I know a lot of people who swear physio off as inconsequential, but I think it has its place. I can’t say it’s ever been a cure to my problems but I have responded positively to it, feeling better after – if only for a day or two. Nonetheless I believe it’s better than not having it, so I plan to continue)

2) Start treatment with an OSTEOPATH. I’ve had success with Osteopathy before, so I’m going to start here before considering other forms of treatment. (Those that I want to have look at include Acupuncture &/or Acupressure, Active Release Technique (ART), Biopuncture and Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilisation (DNS) should the physio and osteopath not prove affective).  

3) In the interim I’m going to get an MRI SCAN to help see exactly what is or isn’t going on in my lower back – hopefully ruling out some more nasty possibilities as a result. 

4) Following that I’m going to take MRI results to an ORTHOPAEDIC specialist for advice on the problem.

5) Research/test out the best WAYS TO MANAGE MY BACK PAIN AT HOME AND AT WORK including the BEST STRETCHING AND STRENGTH EXERCISES plus HOW TO SIT, STAND AND WALK properly. Also what not to do and what other things or tools (shoes etc.) one can use to help (A pilots guide to managing back pain – my next blog post will be a result of this particular research). 

6) Follow up with my results later this year, looking into HOW I CAN PREVENT SIMILAR INJURIES GOING FORWARD and to make sure I have a healthy back well into my old age. I also want to look at HOW TO IDENTIFY AND CORRECT IMBALANCES WITHIN THE BODY (One thing I want to look into is Functional Movement Screening (FMS)). 

7) Regardless of whether I find myself back to full back health or not, I want to look into the IMPLICATIONS OF PERMANENT CHRONIC BACK PAIN. How to manage that going forward? What are the best coping mechanisms people who are in this situation use? (Aside from what pain killers one might use I really want to explore the best PSYCHOLOGICAL TREATMENTS for coping with chronic pain including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)).

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