Does your back hurt? Yeah, I know. So does mine. In fact, 80 per cent of us will experience back pain at some point in our lives. And if you’ve known it, you never want to experience it again.
Usually I post recipes in this space. I like to cook. I like to bake. I like the feel of dough in my hands. I like to make things with my hands.
But I’ve been making and remaking something else for years. My body. And the recipe I need to make it work. That, I’ve had to do with my brain. Here are some thoughts I put together on an experience I had awhile ago.
It’s what I’d been waiting for. To see one thing. If only I could fix that one thing, the pain would go away. Laying the blame. It makes for an easy target. It gives us clarity, purpose, a reason. At least it had for me. Because when you’re in pain, the question you ask is “why”? In the beginning you ask “why me”? Then as you begin to learn more about it, you ask “what part is that”, “why does it hurt” and as the months and years go by, “why does it STILL hurt”?
I’m into my 20th year of back pain. I don’t remember what it means to live without it. It started with some kind of pull or strain as a teenager. It was exacerbated by a weight-lifting injury. Over time, it’s as though it spun a wider and tighter web, wrapping itself around not only my lower back but my upper back, my neck, my legs. It became chronic pain. There have been times I could not find a single position where I felt comfortable. My back would spasm in my sleep.
In. My. Sleep.
Over the years, the pain can be consuming. It’s the first thing you consider when you open your eyes in the morning. It’s the last thing you feel before you close your eyes at night. Sleep so welcome because it may be the one time you’re not thinking about the pain.
I. Tried. Everything.
Or so it seemed. Some things worked. Some things didn’t. And when there was success, it was incremental. When I say incremental, I don’t mean over days or weeks. I’m talking years. Eventually, I shifted from a person who could not walk 10 minutes without pain, to someone who works out every day. That doesn’t mean I don’t have pain. I have a level of pain every day. But it also means it is far less frequent and I am able to help myself through it.
The back pain closed so many doors in my life. It also opened so many others I would otherwise have been blind to. It brought me to pilates and to The Pilates Process (Riverdale Pilates at the time). I thought I knew something about how bodies moved. I thought I knew how mine moved. Turns out my perception and proprioception were more than a little off (props to Emilie McCabe without whom I would not have made it this far). I loved pilates because it was hard. I really had to think about what I was doing. I was creating new neural pathways. I started to watch how others moved. After 2 years as a complex rehabilitation client, I pursued a pilates certification and now try to help others move with more ease, fluidity and strength.
Pilates is the reason I found myself in an anatomy lab at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital in December 2014 as part of the FAMI Workshop (Functional Anatomy for Movement & Injuries). The highlight of the course was spending time looking at actual cadavers – knees, shoulders, feet, the pelvis, the glutes and of course, the back.
As fascinating as every body part was (I held a human lung in my hands…and for the record, it has the “give” of a mushroom), there was one thing I wanted to see more than anything else.
She was slight and small-boned and lying on her belly. I could see what might have been moles on her skin. I lifted the layer of skin and traced through the trapezoid muscles, the rhomboids and the deltoids on her right side. Then I moved to her left, tracing the deeper back muscles including the spinalis, longissimus and iliocostalis. My gloved fingers came to rest on her iliac crest and her gluteus medius, examining all the fibers attaching to the bone, mirroring the structures of my own body, which, for whatever reason, seem to tighten as though they have to hold up the Golden Gate Bridge.
I reached over and around and held between my fingers that ab muscle that everyone is talking about – the transversus abdominus. For all its importance in stability and intra-abdominal pressure, it’s really just like a thin sac and seems rather unassuming.
And then, there it was. The one thing I really wanted to see. The quadratus lumborum or as I like to call it, the “evil QL”. It’s a muscle which seems to tighten almost inexplicably in my case. It’s always seemed a bit of a mystery. Sure, you can look it up in anatomy textbooks (and believe me, I have looked up a ridiculous number of muscles and attachments and structures over the years to try to get a better understanding of what was happening in my body) but it’s just not quite the same as having it laid bare right in front of you. It felt like soft leather. I traced it from the iliac crest to the front of the spine, reaching into and under the cadaver in front of me. It’s one of the structures that holds us together, providing a bridge from the iliac crest to the spine. At various times in my rehabilitation, it’s felt as though it was on permanent vacation or tight as a piano wire.
I half expected the muscle to talk to me in some way. I thought maybe if I saw it, I would in some way feel a sense of relief or calm or peace or deeper understanding. Not quite.
When you experience pain, you look for answers. You want to find the reason and fix it. And when you’ve experienced pain for a very long time and tried many things, you’re always looking for the one thing you’ve missed that you need to do to make yourself better. It’s this never-ending checklist in your head. You wonder if you did this therapy for long enough or if you had just not tweaked that at that particular moment, how far ahead would you be now? It’s an endless game.
In that lab, that day, it all felt a bit like a show down. It’s as though I felt that QL “owed me” for all the years of pain. I was looking for some kind of revelation. I got one. But not the one you think.
The QL is just one piece of an incredibly complex puzzle that is the beauty and the frustration of the human body. It really is quite remarkable how we’re built and how we work (or how we are supposed to work). How every breath, every rhythm, every lift and bounce, pull and push, compression, extension, every rest is part of how and why we work and don’t work.
One irony? Sitting in lectures and then standing in that cold anatomy lab was not great for my back. Then there were the shin splints from walking around New York City.
But there was a time, not too long ago, I would never have signed up for a course like this because I would not have made it through. My pain level would have ratcheted up and it would have set me back several steps or weeks or even months.
Many of us seek out therapy or movement like pilates for particular problems, things that continuously give you trouble or discomfort or areas that you want to strengthen. All of those things are good goals. But what I’ve come to realize is that laser focus on one muscle for example, probably won’t get you to where you want to go. Nothing operates in isolation. We’re a system. When one part of us breaks down, the system weakens. We may still “work”, but not nearly as well as we used to. Focusing on getting better and stronger overall will. Healing is a complex art requiring patience, faith and determination.
The reality is most of us “work” until we don’t. It’s only then we realize that an inefficient biomechanical pattern, repeated over years, landed us right where we are.
When you care for your body, when you’re curious about it, when you’re self-aware about it, you’re giving yourself an incredible gift.
There is no fairy tale ending to my story.
Back pain is still the first thing my brain registers when I wake up.
But these days, my body is “working” more often than not.
I’m a work in progress. Aren’t we all?
If you’re in pain, let me know. Maybe I can help.