I honestly hope this is the last entry in my back injury journey. You might think I am over reacting but it has been mind opening if not life changing. I have learnt so much about back hygiene, questioned my own lifestyle choices and developed a determination never to revisit one of the lowest points in my life. For those who have never had back issues, it's hard to fully understand the immobility a back injury brings, it's an invisible injury. The sharp pains which catch your breath, the mental torture of not being able to complete ordinary tasks, it really does pause your life or at least slow it right down. We've summarised some points to follow at the bottom of the blog if you want to bypass our mouth breathing!
Following my first few appointments with Oli, my osteopath who has been a massive help, I felt my back begin to loosen and normal tasks started to happen with a lesser degree of pain. I was also recommended by James Ferguson a book by Dr. Stuart McGill who gives advice on recovering from back injuries. A book that has completely changed my mindset on back health. Can not re-recommend it enough.
Lying on your back for most of the day, my eyes would mostly be on the TV. It just so happened that Le Tour was on as I was in repair but during the evenings, I found myself trying to conquer Netflix. A few documentaries I had on my list caught my attention because I wanted more avenues to better my life and my body. Game Changers was the first viewing. If you haven't come across it, in a nutshell, it explores the benefits of being vegan in elite athletes. The research and data is obviously pro-vegan but it would be, you wouldn't be promoting something and have an opposing voice on the matter. This was a documentary to show you there is a better choice to living.
Before we explain what we learnt, we're not pushing this choice onto anyone. We have come across a moment in our lives where we want to be in more control of what we consume and the impact we leave on the world. The evidence as to why we should go vegan I feel is overwhelming. From basically having a cleaner plasma which helps blood flow to reduction in cancers and heart disease strongly linked to the consumption of meat. I found myself thinking why am I risking my health because we're 'cultured' into eating meat? And there's obviously the ethical and moral choices when it comes to eating meat. We all know how meat is prepared but we choose unconsciously to ignore it when we're picking up a pack of chicken goujons or a steak fillet for Friday night dinner. The ecological impact is probably the one which should hit home hard and that brings us on to our second viewing recommendation.
Cowspiracy. What started out as one man's quest to reduce his carbon foot turned into an investigation of corruption surprisingly into eco focused groups. The only honesty shown in the documentary was from those directly working within the agriculture industry. It seems the money and greed made from the meat industries blinds the moral question of what price is the world paying for human's obsession with meat consumption? After watching both programmes, I couldn't think of a reason not to go vegan - Do you want to breath cleaner air? Do you want animals to live? Do you want to get your protein and nutrients from the source (plants) rather than having to sampling it through the middle man (animals)? Do you want to have less chance of suffering health issues? For us, these are questions we can't argue with. We've gone 3 weeks without meat now and can honestly say, we do feel more energised especially during the afternoon where we used to get a big drop in energy. We haven't missed meat and have found some as good and even better replacements. Even simple things such as swapping chicken out for roasted cauliflower in a Korma curry. Now, you'll be asking, Korma, that's cream which means it's dairy which means it's not vegan. We're getting there, we're trying to nail one food area at a time. We're currently focusing on milk and making the transition over to plant based milk, we just need to find the right brand and on cue, Alpro have released a speciality tea milk product which we shall be testing in our ceylon tea!
You might also be thinking what has this got to do with your back injury? Well, I used to be in good shape, agile and flexible to a level where I felt I was a decent semi-pro footballer but over the years have bulked out in weight especially on my hips and stomach. No more. Surely one area I can really help out my back is to lose some of this weight? I've lost 4lbs in around 3 weeks since cutting out meat. It makes logical sense, cut the weight from the front and around and there'll be less stress on my back to take. I have begun to feel lighter and my clothes are becoming a little looser, just got to keep it going and then maintain it.
The huge test for me though is how I would feel sitting on a bike again. A lot of pilates, pelvic thrusts and hip opening exercises allowed my lower back to take more stress for longer but sitting on a road bike is not the same as sitting on a comfy leather chair with back support. My school has been very supportive of me and had agreed to a phased return to work; Week 1 mornings only, Week 2 up until lunch, then Week 3 full days. That first commute in though. I have never cycled so cautiously. I was just waiting for my back to tense up. It groaned but tolerated the ride. I made it in. 2 hours of teaching and I was still on my feet. Ride home again had it's groans but managed to cycle all the way through. I kept the route as direct and short as possible. What a shock to the system though. I slept for the rest of the afternoon!
As I grew into the phased weeks, I found the time for my stretches and exercises harder to implement when I wanted to do them. I would manage 10-15mins in the morning before leaving for work but after coming home, house chores and dinner duty meant I'd have to wait till evening to really put an intense session in. This did worry me because I wasn't sure if my back could wait that long. Again, it groaned and slowed up now and then but I made it through. It seemed the core strengthening was paying off. I could feel myself walking more naturally. Getting out of bed was less painful. I was approaching ordinary tasks with a plan to execute it with a strong and efficient posture rather than laziness and incompetence.
I've gradually upped the mileage each week but really by single figures. I'm riding with a full rucksack so it is literally a case of increasing the stress levels to a point I know my back has been worked. I am stretching religiously. Short session in the morning just because of time and a more intense one in the evening usually in front of a boxset. If stretching is not part of your routine, I highly recommend you start implementing it. Even a 15 minute stretch opening up the joints, the freedom and looseness you receive back really sends a wave of confidence through your body. For instance, I completed a 30min workout last night which was mostly pilates focused but combined with some yoga positions and this morning's commute felt strong as it has been for a good while.
So I am at the point in my recovery where I feel I am in control. There are groans and strains but I feel equipped and prepared to deal with any flare ups. It could be scarring but I don't ever want to return that place where I struggled to stand up in our kitchen and make a simple cup of tea, arms shaking, back leaning to my right, shooting pains catching my breath, just completely hopeless in mobility. It is one of those injuries where if you haven't been through that tunnel of misery and out the other side with a whole new outlook, you can't truly understand the level of frustration and to a degree, depression. I call it the 'invisible injury' because I feel there's a stigma attached. A special thanks to Meglio for providing some much helpful physio equipment and also to the people who have shared their experiences with me and I am grateful for that because you really get a scope and insight into what treatments people have been through and a variety of success stories and failures, back injury is more common than you think. Whether it be chronic back pain or sciatica, it's like someone has pressed the pause button on your life. A simple task takes you literally 10x as long to complete. You begin to question is it going to get better and because it is such a long process and hard to adapt your life to, you do begin to think the worst. The scariest image I had was picturing myself older in life playing with my son but I can't because my back is crooked or has given in after a few minutes of play. I have used these thoughts as motivation not to relapse in my recovery, to remind myself to be better and as I have explained, I have used this window to change other aspects of our life along with it. I strongly suggest not to wait for that window to open for you, change through choice before change is enforced upon you...
So our top tips if you do find yourself with back pain:
- Find yourself a safe position (ours in lying flat on the floor on our back knees bent - we found straight legs pulled on our back so bending the knees takes the stress off). We can sit up straight now but will still lie on the floor if we've had a long day with our back.
- If you're into pain medication, get yourself some anti-inflammatory tablets and strong pain relief. I didn't want to rely on them but for your mental wellbeing, it'll give you a chance to attempt regular tasks. Walk in centres and GP can also offer stronger behind the counter stuff. We highly recommend hemp cream too.
- Seek a specialist. GP referral is great if it's in good time and you get a decent physio like Nicola but I also needed a physical examination sooner so an Osteopath would be our recommendation, everyone is different but don't reject it unless you know it's not for you.
- Build an arsenal of go to pain relief tools. Foam rollers. TENS machine. Spine arch stretcher. There will be a time when you'll need a helping hand.
- Keep a balanced diet. You won't be able to do much cardio' and you'll start off with really basic aerobic exercises like walking so take the opportunity to refresh your fridge and cupboards. Worse thing you can do is add more weight on, your back won't like you for it.
- Be committed. It's slow going, each day you'll find yourself being able to reach or stretch further, don't overdo it, keep the progression positive and within your pain threshold. There will be really low points and if something is not working, raise it with your therapist or GP.
- Educate yourself. Books like the Back Mechanic really opens up your mind to adapting your daily routine and understanding how your spine and it's muscles work will really help you in finding the right exercises and positions for you.
- Personalise. Some stretches and exercises might not be as beneficial to you than others so don't be afraid to customise and create a recovery routine for you. Obviously, don't just make up your own stretches because you could do more damage so see point above.