In search of a miracle cure for back pain

by Venetia Sherson / 02 January, 2018

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Venetia Sherson. Photo/ Ken Downie.

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Bad backs can be a pain. Venetia Sherson goes in search of a miracle cure, but learns a few things along the way.

The Frenchman palpating my upper abdomen tells me to breathe in. “More deep,” he says. “This ees like a thing that holds the water in a leek.”

I open my eyes to read his lips. “A leek,” he repeats, “that holds the water.” He means a lake – he thinks a dam is blocking my solar plexus chakra. He thrusts down hard, then releases his hands. My ribs pop like bubble wrap. “That ees good,” he says.

But it’s not. The next day, my back pain is worse, plus I have sore ribs.

Bad backs are a pain. They are the curse of the long-distance truckie, the gardener, the screen-starer, the cashier and the couch potato. But there is no comfort in knowing one-third of the adult population shares your suffering. Or that back pain equally afflicts the wealthy, famous and fit. Golfer Tiger Woods, tennis player Andy Murray and New Zealand’s Olympic rower Mahe Drysdale have all suffered from back pain. It is the second most-common complaint seen by doctors, after coughs and colds.

The good news is most back pain gets better of its own accord. The not-so-good news is that it can go on for years. Backs are a complex junction of bones, discs, nerves and muscles, and when something goes awry, it can prove difficult to fix. Over time, the terminology changes from “back injury” to the more sinister “bad back”.

My bad back comes from a lifetime as a journalist, hunched over a keyboard, shoulders like soldiers, on high alert. The physio has seen it all before. She goes deep into my trapezius to stimulate the trigger points. She also affixes a shocking-pink crisscross strapping between my shoulder blades so I resemble a paintball target. Two months later, the spasms are worse. “Unusual, this,” says my GP, channelling Yoda. He sends me to a specialist who orders an MRI scan, which reveals T4 and T5 are in fine mettle, but there could be a problem with C6. 

People with bad backs become experts in spinal code. T4 and T5 are thoracic vertebrae, between the shoulder blades. C6 is the sixth cervical vertebra that anchors the muscles in the neck and supports the head, which weighs around 5kg, the weight of a bowling ball. Bad posture gives C6 grief.

The specialist prescribes drugs and says to come back if the pain gets worse, adding the next step could be surgery: a cervical fusion that welds the bones together. “I quite like doing those,” he adds, cheerfully. The physio is shocked by the mention of the “S” word and mutters about “variable outcomes”. I like this physio. If she wasn’t married I would ask her to move in with me for daily workouts. Her favourite saying is, “motion is lotion”, which simply means keep mobile. Back pain used to mean bed rest, which led to atrophied muscles. These days the advice is to carry on as normal, and build up muscle strength.

I follow her advice and take up swimming, increase my yoga and stretch my rhomboids like a Schwarzenegger groupie. At night, I sleep with the heat-pack strapped to my back, waking at intervals to warm it like a baby’s bottle.

I also extend my range of oracles in the search for answers. The first cranial osteopath lightly fingers my head and says the cause is a forceps delivery during childbirth – or possibly a fall from a horse. The masseur pulps my glutes and says my hamstrings are taut. The acupuncturist suggests cupping, an ancient Asian therapy (promoted by US super swimmer Michael Phelps) where heated pouches are placed onto the skin, creating suction that supposedly improves blood flow. The cups leave imprints like craters of the moon.

Like most people with back pain, I trek from expert to expert. Apparently, as few as one in 10 cases of bad backs is accurately diagnosed. Hamilton pain management specialist Conrad Engelbrecht sees patients who have spent years on the “medical merry-go-round” visiting GPs, specialists, osteopaths, chiropractors, physiotherapists and acupuncturists. He says we live in an age where we believe we should be able to find a cause and cure.

“Whereas 30 years ago, we might have accepted we had back pain and nothing much could be done about it, people now spend years – often on Google – searching for the Holy Grail. It’s an awful spiral. They get worried and fearful; they become less active, and socialise less; they take more sick leave and may give up work. Their anxiety promotes more pain.”

Once you join the BPC (Back Pain Club), you become part of a subculture in which fellow sufferers share stories and cures. A motel owner in Ohakune says she gets relief from massaging her back with two tennis balls joined with duct tape. A shop assistant at the ergonomic chair store swears by mega doses of vitamin C, Chinese pain plasters and Ibuprofen washed down with Coca-Cola – “which makes it act more quickly”.

The Coke remedy, I ignore. But at the Asian supermarket, I load up with Rising Moon Pain Plasters, which contain capsaicin, extracted from chillies. The spasms are shocked into submission for an hour.     

After 12 months, it is clear there will be no quick fix, despite the endless promises by YouTube experts, manufacturers of “smart” pillows, and sellers of magnets said to block pain signals to the brain. When a back has been badly treated for years, it takes time, effort and commitment to bring it back to health. You need to gradually reprogramme the way the way you sit, walk and work.

Today, my yoga mat lies beside my desk. At regular intervals, I stop, drop and stretch. I breathe into my abdomen and stand tall like a Greek statue, imagining a golden thread pulling my head upwards. Eighteen months on from when my back called “time”, there has been no miracle cure. But there are incremental improvements. T4, T5 and C6 seem to be getting along better. And my solar plexus chakra seems content. 

This was published in the November 2017 issue of North & South.

 

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