If you suffer from bad back pain – the type painkillers won’t touch – then you’ll understand the drive to try any remedy to relieve it.
It can be pretty relentless. I have been through a number of solutions and, depending on the pain that day, they have either taken the edge off or given me a day where I actually feel relatively good.
Here are things I would spend my money on again (I haven’t included osteo or physio, as most people with back pain will already be involved in that route, or red wine, which frankly works a treat, because self-medication with alcohol is not ideal and leads to its own problems).
I had three months of Rolfing sessions, once a week. On my first session I couldn’t even bend down to take my jeans off in the treatment room and I was feeling quite down and demoralised. Rolfing was a last resort that I came across by chance when I was pretty low.
I thoroughly enjoyed every session – the hands-on approach treating the soft, connective tissues is instantly therapeutic but the results also have longevity. The theory behind Rolfing is that unlike traditional physio or osteo, you treat the whole body to correct imbalance and create ‘space’ between the joints.
It may sound like voodoo and, because it is not something that can be proved with medical science, necessarily, it has its detractors.
However, with every session, I felt better both during and afterwards. I had something of a breakthrough after session 6, when my practitioner, Sybil Darrington – who has a clinic at Evolve in South Kensington and also in Whitstable, Kent – worked on my midsection to create space between my rib cage and pelvis and hips.
I stood up off the bed and felt instantly an inch taller. It was as if I were wearing a girdle – my rib cage was elevated and my waist longer and more defined.
It felt stronger, my posture was instantly improved and I could hold it there.
I was naturally and effortlessly standing tall rather than collapsing on to my right hip, something that I had noticed was contributing to my pain.
It was such a blatant physical transformation that if I had had any doubts before (I did, I am naturally cynical and I had read articles about Rolfing that had said it didn’t have enough scientific proof behind it), then this put them to rest. it was actually slightly spooky. I felt like I had a new body.
This lengthening and strengthening effect lasted into the next fortnight, and top-up sessions maintained it. Sybil also gave me practical tips for walking in a more biomechanically friendly way (rooting my heels into the floor) and getting up in a way that made sure I was using my core instead of my lower back (lean forward in my chair, weight over my feet and stand up).
The traditional 10-session approach (I had 11 in the end) treats the whole body (including a deep nasal massage and an in-mouth massage which you need to try it to believe) and I genuinely loved it.
I feel like an absolute walking cliche to say that Pilates helps with my back pain, but I believe it does. It’s not an instant fix, but given a large part of my problem is down to rubbish core and gluteus maximus (butt) muscles, Pilates is the exercise that reaches the parts others cannot reach and it gives you the tools for life.
If like me you found the idea of lying on a mat doing micro-movements insanely dull in comparison to a fast cross-country run or bike ride you can no longer pull off, then try reformer Pilates.
It is more interesting and engaging and it allows for such control and precision. Plus it’s kind of fun and the right kind of daunting to walk into a room full of medieval-looking racks.
I worked with Hakan at Pilates Squared in Gloucester Road. He has overcome more severe back pain and problems than I have and, as part of his rehabilitation, he discovered Pilates.
He was sufficiently inspired to retrain as a Pilates instructor and now specialises in working with people with back pain and other injuries.
He has the knowledge to isolate the precise muscles that need to be strengthened and the personality type to get you to stick at the exercises until those muscles are burning (in a good way).
It was the first time in so long I felt like I was making a real difference to my weakening muscles that had wasted with my lack of exercise. My glutes were finally awake and my limp little arms were finally put to work.
I need to keep it up as I believe it is the one thing that will have the most long-lasting and rehabilitative effects, plus it’s always good for my mental health to do exercise.
3 Fitbit and walking
Until I got my Fitbit in January this year I had no idea that I had dropped down to around 3,500 steps a day. It’s a paradox that while my personal pain drains me and kills any motivation to exercise, it is least bad when I am walking.
Despite having lost my motivation to exercise, I bought a Fitbit. Fortunately, I am an obsessive person and I became immediately obsessed (some would say unhealthily, whatever) with my steps.
My first goal was to get up to the most obvious target of 10,000 steps, so I restructured my day around walking.
I did the old classic that every article about ‘moving more’ recommends (and I had written myself 100 times and never observed): I got off the Tube a stop early and walked the last mile to work. I also started walking 25 minutes to the station.
Now I average 15,000 – 18,000 steps a day. I lost weight, look healthier and I recovered some of my dynamism. Walking hasn’t cured my back pain overall, but it lifts it while I am walking and delays it coming on in the day. Plus I am happier and I have 546,998 photos of my sunrise/sunsets walks to work and back.
My family and friends tease me for my step obsession but my Fitbit is the most useful constant reminder I have ever had that movement is good, immobility is bad.
4 A standing desk
I had been wanting a standing desk for years but it’s not something that’s the norm in my workplace.
Once I was bored of suffering hours of pain every day though, I realised I had to ask.
I got a Varidesk – which is a platform on hydraulics that you just put on top of your own. It lifts up and down to 11 different levels very easily and it isn’t hyperbole to say it changed my life.
I used to dread coming to work and it took all my mental power not to be grumpy because I was in such a lot of pain. Now I am not trapped in a chair, I end my day feeling more energetic, despite standing most of it.
I am also more motivated to move, both within the office – walk to talk to someone instead of messaging them, get water more regularly etc – and I am more animated for a walk home.
It also means fewer hours in the day I am in pain.
5 Deep Heat pads
I bought these in desperation during a flare-up. I slapped a whole pack on both sides of the gluteus medius, where some of the more the severe muscle pain is. They heated up the moment they went on and stayed warm for at least 5 hours when I took them off. They help me on car journeys and when I have to sit in a chair.
I also use the spray-on Deep Heat, which is a blast from the past. It smells so strong and reminds me of locker rooms in the 80s but is quick and easy to use and actually helps.
6 New mattress
I had been sleeping on a 10-year-old mattress that had seen better days. It was unsupportive and left me in more pain after a night of sleep than when I went to bed.
I researched and found Duvalay, who have consistently had excellent reviews for comfort. The company was on Dragons’ Den in 2011 and Hilary Devey invested, leading to the creation of the Hilary Devey collection.
My best nights of sleep lately have been in hotels and I wanted to recreate that mattress feel – not hard and unyielding, as that does not offer enough support, but a medium firm mattress with a soft, cloud-like top.
I went for the Diamond model, which has 2,000 nested pocket springs with natural fillings and has been described as feeling as if it should cost ‘three times as much as it does’.
It has a cool cotton summer side and a cosy cashmere and wool winter side and has that hotel feel I was looking for – initially soft but yielding to a supportive, comfortable, cosy feel. It means I wake up less stiff and I wake less in the night in discomfort.
7 Deep sleep
Thanks to the sleep chart on my Fitbit, I began to notice that my worst pain days often followed a night of broken sleep that had led to long periods of light sleep and very little deep sleep. I noticed also that when I had a long period of deep sleep and shorter wakeful periods towards morning, my pain was usually less severe.
Deep sleep is the portion of sleep that is beneficial for physical restoration and this lined up with my experience.
My deep sleep usually occurs in the hours just after I have gone to sleep – ordinarily lasting an hour and a half to around three hours. I made it my goal to get my deep sleep up at the longer end of the spectrum.
How did I do this? I found my deep sleep was disrupted by a number of things: Alcohol (particularly white wine before bed, which almost always results in very little deep sleep, broken light sleep and long wakeful periods), noise in my room, stress (tends to wake people up at 3-4am for an hour or two), fluctuating bed times, electronic devices in the bedroom. Standard stuff.
Eliminate, manage or limit those elements, ideally all at once, but failing that a proportion of them, and better quality deep sleep is within reach.
I am still working on the full set (I still can’t resist a glass of wine and social media binge before bed) but at least I know what I should be doing.
I was dubious about this one as well, I admit, though I had read numerous studies that showed while acupuncture isn’t effective for all conditions it claims to treat, it has been proven medically to help chronic back pain.
I went to the Total Wellbeing Clinic in East Sheen and spoke to Dr Zhou who prescribed 6 sessions of acupuncture with massage and Chinese medicine.
There was some discomfort as the needles went into the tightest muscles – I could feel a more intense pain as they spasmed when the needle hit and the light electrical impulses passed through the needles is a sensation that needs some getting used to – but it was quite relaxing to lie there for half an hour with the needles being warmed by the heat lamp.
At the end, Dr Zhou performed a firm, effective massage and I got dressed, very stiff from the hour lying down. Right afterwards, I could not feel much of a difference, partly because the stiffness took some time to subside. But once home and for the rest of the day, I was in less pain than I had been in weeks. I also thought the price – £35 per session for acupuncture, £28 for massage – was very fair, and you can have a free consultation.
Dr Zhou recommended having sessions close together for maximum benefit. However, my lifestyle has thus far prevented me from doing so. Some people have reported incredible results from acupuncture – even being cured of long-term back pain – so once I get the time, I’ll be back more regularly.
9 The Back Nodger
I feel like I should mention the Nodger, even though my back pain is now lower and spread across my bottom half.
Before that happened, I had the sort of burning, mid-back/shoulder blade pain that is common for people who work at a desk.
I was sent a Nodger to try and when I saw the gadget – a rudimentary metal rod curved into a hook with a red metal nobble at the end – I had zero faith.
But, once you work out how to use it (it couldn’t be easier – you hold the nobble into your back and push away from you) it is insanely effective.
You know when you have a massage and there’s one short moment where they find the exact spot but they only hover there for a moment? It’s like that, but you’re in control. It’s based on Shiatsu and it genuinely helps release the knots.
You hold it on the spot to stimulate it, then when you release, blood rushes to it and promotes healing in the muscle. Simple but brilliant.
10 CBD oil
CBD oil – aka cannabidiol hemp oil – is a high CBD, low-THC version of marijuana extract. That means it has none of the psychoactive properties – you will not get high from taking it – but is loaded with CBD, a substance that interacts with the human body’s natural systems, specifically the endocannabinoid system.
It works by binding to cell receptors in the body that affect everyday functions such as sleep and appetite, as well as pain and mood regulation as it influences the release and uptake of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and seratonin.
You do not need a prescription or licence to buy it – but you should make sure you’re buying high grade CBD oil and not regular hemp oil, which is more of an omega supplement and offers no more pain relief than salad oil.
I tried it on the recommendation of a friend who had shattered the bones in his leg and found CBD oil meant he no longer needed to take prescription opiate painkillers with all their side effects.
I also interviewed a number of people with Fybromyalgia who had experienced an almost full recovery after using CBD oil.
One had been struck down quite suddenly by Fybromyalgia, going from a strong 30-something gym goer to bedbound. He started taking two gel capsules a day and is now living an active life again.
It has also helped many people with MS, chronic pain, insomnia and even anorexia.
I use the 1,000mg oil from Truth Naturals and have tried the gummies (surely the most fun way to take any medicine) and capsules, which are good for people who like a very specific dose.
Since taking it I have stopped using the ibuprofen and paracetamol that I had taken for years.