Subtle awareness, is this one of the answers?

Alexander Technique

Alexander Technique (Photo credit: gordonplant)

How have I managed to move forward my recovery from chronic pain in such a dramatic way after two and a half long decades of pain and frustration. I now have the luxury of analysing the last 3 years and also the more recent past of 6 months using a mind which is clearer due to much less pain. Pain exhausts the mind as well as the body. Its only when you have less pain you can realise  how much your brain was otherwise engaged  However it’s rather difficult to explain. This subtlety is  definitely one for experiencing rather than just being made aware of it. Please bear with me whilst I attempt to explain!

I have explained in previous articles and posts how I used therapeutic massage for many years to cope with significant pain and to try to reduce its severity. I then layered on learning the Alexander Technique which stopped the life draining muscle and whole body spasms. I then was able to start moving my body with well targeted Sarah Key exercises without fear of injury. What thread ties these three techniques together? Was the order of the use of these techniques important?

We constantly use our bodies even when we sleep (how many of us wake up with a stiff neck from sleeping in an awkward position?). I have found its only when you become intricately aware of how your body is at any one time that you can then go on to modify and adapt your bodies state. This is done by addressing any problems you may be experiencing or preferably stop any problems in the first place. In other words, if you know what the problem is you can do something about it before it gets too bad! The trick is how do you get this knowledge, how do you know what the problem is or what contributes to the problem?

In all three techniques we have the opportunity to understand the subtleties of our body and how it reacts when used and at rest. The Alexander Technique however stands out more than the others due to its focus on the intricacies of movement. The person being taught the technique learns how to become aware of things which are so subtle that in ordinary day to day life they wouldn’t normally register in their conscious mind. When learning the techniques developed by Frederick Alexander the client’s mind is busy with all it must consider. When the technique becomes more learnt and ingrained then consideration of this subtle awareness takes no more than a blink of an eye or a random thought.

For example when out walking I may think about keeping my arms through to my finger tips relaxed and heavy by my sides, look at how I am holding my head, assess the tension in my legs and lower back, analyse how I am walking and determine how ‘lightly’ I am moving. Three years after learning the Alexander Technique I can do this with a flutter of my eyelids, no longer and no more effort than that.

I also believe that having become more aware of the subtleties of my own condition it enabled me to have the best outcome possible with a technique such as Physiotherapy (Sarah Key’s) due to my awareness of what my body was doing. It enabled me not to overdo specific exercises and to fully feel the effect of each one. This helped me tailor my own regime of exercise, rest and stretches.

You may call it becoming more body aware, self aware etc. There are no doubt other ways of doing this to a lesser or greater degree. I have found the Alexander Technique worked for me, there may be other ways but however it’s done it can bring rewards which stay with you forever.

Any one for tennis?

Shot of a tennis racket and two tennis balls o...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was 7 years ago that I played tennis with my family. We had cycled to the tennis court, played for an hour or so and cycled home again. That night my arm and neck had incredible pain in them and I could hardly move let alone sleep. It was clear something very bad had happened. In the end it was three prolapsed discs, about a year of recovery and a couple of years to get rid of the arm pain completely. The damage to my confidence was not so ‘quick’ to heal.

Sunday was a beautiful day. Cold but sunny. A perfect day for tennis!!! In the quest for normality this was a goal I had set myself. I love tennis. It reminds me of my carefree days as a child hitting a ball to a friend or against a wall. Summers where there were very little worries.

With my mind firmly set on my ability to spot and get out of trouble should it arise we had a lovely afternoon with the children on the tennis court. A walk rather than cycling to the court was the pre-match warm up and a walk home was the warm down. I know from the many previous times where I have embarked on exercise or sport it takes up to three days for the inflammation process to kick in with a vengeance. After the game I used a plai oil/argan oil blend (4 drops plai to 15ml argan) to massage my lower back and neck to hopefully stave off any inflammation (the temptation to use some NSAID’s was great but I knew I wanted to know if I could survive without). I did some back ironing, a small amount of spinal rolling and a little tennis ball massage as well. That evening I watched tv for 30 minutes lying on the floor with my legs up on a bean bag. I hoped and hoped…..

The next day….a comfortable night, thankfully. A slightly stiff neck, sore shoulder and fragile lower back…..that’s all so far! Fingers crossed for day 2 and 3! I’ll continue with the exercises very gently and also using my Alexander Technique knowledge to reduce any tension in the vulnerable areas…..

Could this be the start of the next stage of rehabilitation?…..only time will tell.

Natural anti-inflammatories..?

Anti-inflammatory medication (NSAID) is commonly used along-side pain relief medication and muscle relaxants to help with back and neck problems. For years I have longed for a natural anti-inflammatory. By that I mean a natural alternative to Ibuprofen (commonly called Advil in the US),  Voltaren (diclofenac) or Naproxen which are used for their anti-inflammatory properties. These medications over many years have caused stomach problems (common side effect) and I needed another option to deal with inflammation which didn’t have these side effects.

Pill tablet

Pill tablet (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

A good friend of mine who is a therapist and understands essential oils recommended I look into Plai oil. It’s used commonly in Thailand for massage and thought to have a cooling anti-inflammatory effect. I researched it myself and felt comfortable using it, both neat (on a small area of the body) and in a carrier oil. (I recommend you do your own research and look into what carrier oils work best for you). I am pleased to say it helps. Its exciting to have at last found something which I can use safely instead of the other medications.

For those in similar circumstances with stomach problems from use of NSAID’s I have found after a couple of years using Omeprazole medication I have managed to heal my stomach and am now medication free. I will use plai oil or ibuprofen gel occasionally as needed. There were many days previously when I felt I would never recover from the stomach problems I had. I couldn’t eat spicy or very savoury food. Alcohol was not really possible unless it was a small amount of something like a very sweet wine and so my diet was fairly bland. However things did improve with time. I am now back to a normal diet and manage any pain with the oil or gel as described above.

As always, do your own research and see what works best for you. Its pretty satisfying and dare I say empowering!!!

(Sarah does not have a medical background so it is emphasised that her blog is the result of her experiences and listening to others only. Before doing any of the suggestions contained in her blog, check with your doctor if you have any concerns on how they may affect you)

Winter’s cold

Winter morning

Winter morning (Photo credit: blmiers2)

I notice in winter time I turn inwards against the cold. My posture changes, my goal is to reduce the surface area of my body which is exposed to the cold air. My shoulders gravitate forward and in  and I tense various muscles – I guess in the hope of becoming smaller! Living in an old house which has its fair share of icy drafts means sometimes it hard to feel wrapped in a layer of warmth however many clothes I put on. Its at times like these I wish I could hibernate!!

I know at this time of the year I have to be really vigilant keeping my muscles relaxed and warm, not contracted. In the morning its especially hard to leave a warm bed. The warm shower never seems to last long enough. The thought of doing exercises in a cold room does nothing to my good intentions! I have to step up the mental energy required to push forward my recovery.

Countries that make regular use of saunas are places that I wish to be. Either that or winter sun!! But no, I am here and its time to wrap up warm, go for a brisk walk in the few hours of sunlight we have and put into practice all my Alexander Technique tips to keep my body relaxed and moving efficiently on this cold day. How many months have we left until Springtime?

Moving forward on heels!

I never thought this day would come! Not in my wildest dreams…..I look at other women and wonder how they do it? How on earth do they manage?

I’m talking of course about wearing a pair of high heels!! If you have ever had bad back pain you know what I mean when I say the thought of wearing a pair of high heels is just a step too far! (This post as you may have gathered is aimed primarily at women but men’s heels can also be a fashion!)

English: A pair of high heeled shoe with 12cm ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Its been years…..and years! However this weekend saw a celebration and having found a nice outfit, only heels would do. Remarkably a vaguely comfortable pair was found and I put my best foot forward. Not only walking around, but a couple of hours dancing was a necessity! Any thoughts of ‘how on earth am I going to manage’ were strongly pushed away. I told myself I know how to get myself out of difficulty so I’m fine. (The meds were also to hand if things went too wrong!).

Apart from my feet being ‘broken’… was all fine. My usual routine of back care did the job and the ache in my feet is on the way out. Amazed, yes, delighted, absolutely! It’s the little things which mean so much!

How do I care for my back daily?

Afternoon sun shower

(Photo credit: David T Jones)

So let’s get specific. Hopefully the techniques I have described in the rest of the blog are applicable to most people, with each person adapting them as required for themselves. However I wanted to give you an idea of the sort of things I do day-to-day to give some more specific ideas of some sort of routine which you can adapt for yourself.

In the morning, before getting out of bed I stretch/elongate in a balanced way. After a warm shower I will do some spinal rolling (Sarah Key exercise), a small amount of back ironing and if sciatica is a problem, have a check with the tennis ball for any sensitive areas in my back which I know aggravate my sciatica. I then massage on those areas (usually the same side of my spine as the sciatic pain) with the tennis ball. All this takes at the most 5 mins.

In the day, usually by some time in the afternoon I need to spend 10 – 20 mins lying down to take the pressure off the discs in the lower back. I use semi-supine for this (an Alexander Technique position). I also add a bit of back ironing if my lower back is a bit tight. Obviously this depends if I have access to an area to lie down! If I can’t lie down then Sarah Key has a good squatting technique. I will use the Alexander Technique throughout the day as a background to my activities (this means I will try to use my body as effectively as I can to reduce any tension and stress on all areas of it)

Before bed, its more back ironing, tennis ball checking and massage, exercises from Sarah Key (spinal rolling, reverse curl-ups) and if my back is relaxed I will try Sarah’s Back Block routine to try to help feed my discs. If things have flared up then I use semi-supine for 10- 20 mins. Anywhere between a total of 10 and 30 mins of treatment depending on time available and how my back is feeling. Each day will therefore be a little different depending on what activities I have been doing and how my overall well-being is.

In time I hope to be able to add more of Sarah Key’s exercises to help my lower back further and also try some of her exercises for other joints in the body. Sarah Key also gives details in her books of a 30 min daily exercise plan.

Layer onto this some walking, swimming and hopefully in time further sport/exercise and it combines to make life much more comfortable! Try seeing what works for you!

Looking back to move forward

I tell people I am in a different place now – totally different! I can see their confusion but they politely say ‘that’s great’. I know they have no concept of my own situation and actually that’s fine. I’m glad I have kept the darkest times to myself or at least to the closest family.

Remember Reality

(Photo credit: Pensiero)

There are still times that I could class a day as ‘bad’ (now very rarely – thankfully!). How bad are they really? I have to remember my life before to put these days in context and then to move on with a spring in my step.

I have to remember missing weeks of university in my first year due to the original injury to my back. I have to remember flying from Japan to the UK in such pain I begged the crew to let me lie down on the floor but was not allowed so spent the 12 hrs in torment. I have to remember walking through deep snow and not being able to move from a bent position. I have to remember the subsequent  journey by car down the hill which was excruciating. I have to remember coping with a first job with acute sciatica and prolapsed discs. I have to remember not knowing if I could walk down the aisle to be married. I have to remember not being able to pick up my baby. I have to remember trying to function with three prolapsed discs in my neck. I have to remember the glint in the surgeon’s eye. I have to remember every holiday being in pain through travel or different beds. I have to remember all the cancelled events or holidays due to paralysis through spasms. I have to remember not being able to do my favourite sports. I have to remember each car journey being a trial. I have to remember not wanting to sit down and stop due to the pain. I have to remember the pain through the night. I have to remember the hospital procedures, scans and treatments. I have to remember the fog of medications. I have to remember not being able to continue this way. I have to remember the raw, unimaginable pain. I have to remember not knowing where to turn or who to trust. I have to remember being told that I have to live with it. I have to remember the smile I tried to wear.

Reading other people’s blogs, website and stories and listening to people has reminded me of these times. I am thankful I do not live them anymore. I understand that it’s useful to look back occasionally, not to dwell or to self pity but to understand how far forward I have really come. I conquered the maze by luck – sadly there are many ‘dead-ends’ out there with people suffering in them. My pain now is that other’s suffer this way when there is an alternative.