I have a uniquely embarrassing confession. I hurt my back a couple of weeks ago.
Now, this is not really an embarrassing thing. 8 out of 10 Americans will experience chronic back pain sometime in their life according to statistics from the American Chiropractic Association. However, I spend a decent amount of my teaching practice working with people on how to prevent back and neck pain. So what went wrong?
The good/bad news, is that I know what I did, and what's more, I knew what I was doing when I hurt myself. Like many of us, I started off my new year with an invigorated enthusiasm for making change. Part of this was a schedule of keeping active in the Chicago winter by setting a consistent gym schedule. After my Thursday cardio workout, I felt a twinge in an old tailbone injury I sustained from a sledding accident in high school. Normally if I feel I have overworked this area, I stop, give a little extra attention to Use for the next couple days, and that is the end of that. This time, I didn't listen to my body, and decided to work out Friday anyway and stick with my plan. And until late Friday afternoon, I thought that I had gotten away with it. Then I felt some sneaking tightening up in the muscles around the left side of my sacrum, and by Saturday morning, I was experiencing significant pain. So this brings me to the first thing I learned from this experience.
1. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY AND STOP BEFORE YOU HAVE MAJOR PAIN.
There is an old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This is absolutely true. Once you are experiencing pain, a process has begun that is much harder to slow down than when the tension or breakdown was minor. Stopping before you experience significant pain or discomfort can keep you from all sorts of problems around the road including acute injury. This is why the Alexander Technique focuses on prevention rather than cure. That being said, nobody is perfect. My back pain came from my failure to apply what I already knew.
So, for the first time in my adult life, I was experiencing acute back pain. Great. Rather than focusing on my pain and giving it energy, I decided to make it an opportunity to learn about what it was like to do Alexander Technique work while suffering from pain, as many of my students do. Here are some other things that I learned.
2. STATIC POSTURE IS THE ENEMY.
Almost immediately, I found that keeping still, whether lying down or sitting up, was the surest way to increase my pain. This is in line with a model I teach every student--that the body is not made to be held in stasis, but is in constant dance of balance against, with, and using gravity. When in a static posture, muscles become overtaxed and it is a strain to allow the system to free 'up'. This does not mean that the motion has to be quick or dramatic--it might not even be visible on the outside. But allowing the possibility for movement keeps strain away from swelling areas and gives them space to loosen and not over-inflame. I found the best relief from my pain when allowing gentle rocking sitting on a supportive, not overly padded surface, feeling a tiny sway in my standing, or lightly moving around my space and doing Alexander procedures such as monkey and hands on the back of chair with mindfulness and attention. One of the things these procedures helped me to do, as well, was not be drawn too much into my pain, which brings me to the next thing I learned....
3. PUT YOUR PAIN IN LARGER CONTEXT.
It is easy when you are in pain to get drawn into it. When our attention is drawn into one area, we tend to unconsciously collapse or tense in that area. This works against what our system needs--expansion and suspension that will keep the injured area from overloading and give it room to heal. What can help is to expand your attention to your full body(particularly the relationship of your head, neck, and back) and your environment to prevent this over-concentration. I had the wonderful opportunity to trade work with the excellent Andersonville-based teacher Andrew McCann in the week I was experiencing pain. One of the very helpful things he helped me to do was to focus on directing my front to open instead of focusing on the injured area on my back, which I found not only put my pain in context but diminished my experience of it. I also found that when I was working with my students, my pain lessened--by focusing on their Use and improving it in relationship to my own, it made it much easier to handle my dysfunction. It helped me to focus my experience outside of myself. So what I'm saying is, you should probably train as an Alexander Technique Teacher :)
4. DIRECT, BUT KEEP IT GENTLE.
Here, it should be stated that my injury was an acute muscular injury, not a disc injury or a chronic injury(lasting for more than a month), which would behave differently. What I found was that though keeping mindful and keeping in touch with my 'up' was helpful, too much up, such as what would happen after doing constructive rest was not initially useful. I would get up from constructive rest experiencing strong discomfort. There is a reason why our bodies react the way they do when we are injured--your body needs time to rebuild, and the swelling helps to protect and contain the injury. If you try to fully stretch the back while experiencing strong swelling, it can cause more challenge than that area is ready for. So, take it easy--stick with the gentle movements described earlier. However, once the swelling began to significantly reduce, strong direction and constructive rest came invaluable in restoring function and helping to counter tensions that had come into the rest of the back as a result of the imbalance of muscle tone resulting from my injury.
5. USE A.T. IN CONJUNCTION WITH CONVENTIONAL STRATEGIES FOR THE BEST RESULTS.
When it comes to injury, A.T. is an excellent supplementation to conventional and alternative medicines, but not a replacement for it. Whenever I work with a client who comes to me with pain, one of the first things I ask is whether they have seen a doctor if chronic pain or serious injury have been involved. The reason for this is simply that I am a teacher, not a qualified medical professional, and though I can help when Use is a contributing factor, I am not qualified to diagnose the causation of pain nor proscribe or implement all possible solutions to the problem. I cannot stress this enough. I have also had great experiences with my clientsg oing to mindful chiropractic care, acupuncture, and massage therapy, which help in ways I cannot.
For my injury, I also visited my friend Heidi Beucher Shimko of Edgewater's Kwai Fah Acupuncture Clinic which helped me to reduce my swelling, make some good connections, and helped enormously. I also used over the counter anti-inflammatory drugs, which also made a difference. The most pleasurable home remedy I experienced was bathing using Epsom salts(which can help if the problem is muscular). I found that doing Alexander work and constructive rest after receiving these bits of help were the times I found the A.T. work most effective. Our systems are very complicated, and many things can help them--as long as we also take responsibility to how our Use contributes to the problem.
In all, I was lucky. With help, my pain was significantly reduced after just about 4 days and virtually gone and full functionality restored a week following the injury. I am going to move forward mindfully and cautiously to prevent recurrence of the injury--because I feel better doesn't mean I am going to jump in full throttle and repeat my mistakes.
As with all things, I am grateful for the opportunity for learning this bit of living has given me.
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.