What and Why?

Your spine, the axis of your body around which your skull, ribs and limbs are arranged, comprises twenty-six separate bones. They get far too much attention because they show on X-rays and can be displayed as the familiar hinged skeleton. This skeleton makes very little sense without its associated joints, cartilages, ligaments, muscles and tendons. These are the really important parts, for which the bones are mainly a hard core; together they provide not just strength but flexibility, suppleness, shock-absorption, power and elegance of movement. The functional efficiency of all this is what matters to you. Doctors tend to overlook this, which is why they often deal with backache unimaginatively.

Your spine is therefore only one part of your back, and it is hard to say exactly what your back consists of. Its various components weave together so harmoniously that you cannot dissect out their separate functions; they work as a whole. Your limbs are not separate either; muscles and ligaments interweave with their counterparts along your back, gracefully extending your form and abilities in smooth continuity. This marvellous design is very poorly described by medical science, according to which you ought to move more like a robot than a human being. In reality you just move, gracefully and simply, without even thinking about it.

When your back aches therefore, changes will not usually show on X-rays and structures are seldom seriously disturbed. The pain signifies strain in the structures most abused by your unbalanced pattern of movement. Unnaturally tense muscles may not even be inflamed, but gasping for air that cannot get in because the blood is almost permanently squeezed out of them. Ironically the muscles may in the first place go tense to protect a damaged joint, yet the muscle pain can end up much harder to bear than any pain in the joint could ever be!

Another kind of problem arises more suddenly and hurts more sharply, when one of the small joints at the side of your spine is dislocated. You can often feel it happen during some awkward movement. The dislocation is far too slight to show on X-ray, and your doctor is likely to recommend anti-inflammatory drugs. The joint really needs manipulating back into place, and the sooner the better. Happily, some doctors are now taking an interest in manipulative treatments, and a few are learning these skills for themselves.

A slipped disc is quite another feeling, like a sharp stab which may shoot down your leg. It can happen in your neck too, giving headache or pain down your arm. In either case the cushion joint between two spinal bones has torn, letting some of the stuffing press out against a nerve. This is the condition conventional doctors understand best, though they have been slow to realize the potential of osteopathy and manipulative physiotherapy to accelerate healing of the injury.

Last but not least, accidental overconsumption of fluoride for years at a time can eventually cause backache as one of the easy symptoms of skeletal fluorosis.

What can I do?

 Advice to maintain and maximise health

1. If you may have slipped a disc, consult your doctor. He will suggest rest in bed. Ask him to cooperate with an osteopath, or chiropractor if you have one locally; he may even recommend one. Gentle manipulation by an expert can very much improve your healing.

2. Otherwise accept your doctor’s assurances that you have no structural damage in your back, and seek your remedy elsewhere. If you accept pain-killing or anti-inflammatory drugs, use them briefly and sparingly.

3. Heat always relaxes muscles and encourages your circulation. Soak in a hot bath for ten minutes, in a comfortable position; lavender bath milk helps the relaxing effect.

4. If massage finds muscles that are tender and tense, get your masseur to knead them for ten minutes with his finger-tips. Any caring relative can feel instinctively what he should do, and is rewarded as the muscles soften and your discomfort is eased.

5. Arnica ointment can be applied after the massage or bath, to reinforce their effect and soothe any bruising, which may partly account for the spasm.

6. Magnetic foil strips have been devised by various manufacturers, to exploit the undoubted healing properties of magnetic fields. But there are several types; with some you need enough information to apply the correct polarity to your skin — north, or south. If you have repeated problems of the same kind, it may be worth your while to invest in a piece of foil and experiment with it, according to the instructions. Some are delighted, others disappointed with their results.

7. Alexander Technique is better for re-learning your posture, in the first place preventing recurrence; but you may discover lots more about yourself in the process. Traditional Chinese Medicine can correct the energy impulses which underlie your postural problems, but may not remedy structural disturbances. A Podiatrist can tell you if your walking is at fault, and by correcting it will remove a cause which stubbornly recurs otherwise. If you use a ’bonesetter’, choose carefully by reputation (see Complementary Medicine).

8. A simple back strengthening exercise is worth repeating night and morning. Lying on your face in bed, lift your chin and your knees off the mattress simultaneously for a count of ten; then relax for ten. Repeat this a few times and increase the number as your back muscles get stronger.

9. Learn to make all your powerful movements at your ankles, knees, hips and arm joints with your spine rigid and straight. Never lift with your spine bent, or use movement in your spinal joints to do the work.

10. Yoga, dance and eurhythmy (Steiner) develop graceful movement well, which protects your back; look for local instructors at your Adult Education Institute or in Yellow Pages.

11. Swimming, cycling and walking (preferably on cushioned, shaped soles and not on concrete) give safe exercise.

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