Back pain has been a professional specialty of mine since 1999. I should say, back pain relief has been my specialty since that time. That professional focus arose directly from my personal experience with spine surgery and my expert training in functional movement.
It seems odd to me that hundreds of people each year are trained as personal trainers with certifications in “functional training,” yet I rarely meet someone who can teach what I teach, how I teach it. They don’t really understand the deep core musculature. They don’t really know what stretches or exercises accomplish what gains. They don't really understand the progressions that help clients--who've been in active pain for weeks, months, or decades--get a truly strong core and a pain-free back.
And then it finally dawned on me: It’s my personal experience with back pain that makes my style or method of teaching so effective.
I’ve lived back pain. I’ve survived back surgery. I’ve struggled through recovery, not just from that, but from a traumatic hip surgery as well. I know exactly what it’s like to suffer those few hours when one pain pill is wearing off, and it’s too soon to take another; to roll the wrong way in bed and have pain make me cry; to struggle through just a couple tiny physical therapy movements when I know that I have to complete dozens more in order for my range of motion to return and my muscles not to atrophy further.
I’ve been faced with many physical challenges for the last 25+ years of my life.
But here’s the thing: I’m still here. I’m still active. I’m still pain free.
And that’s what I bring to this field of back-pain management (and functional movement training) that others simply don’t: first-hand experience, first-hand struggle, first-hand success and triumph.
Because of my own experience, I have an undying belief—rather, a knowing—that you, too, can overcome whatever obstacles (physical, emotional, spiritual) you’re facing, and come out the other side a pain-free, thriving, integrated person. I’ve seen it happen time and again with clients and students of mine. And I invite you to join us.
Why is it that most yoga teachers believe that spinal flexion helps alleviate back pain? Let's explore.
What is spinal flexion? Flexion of the spine occurs when your rib cage rounds closer to your pelvis or thighs. In most yoga classes, flexion is achieved by performing common Forward Folds, such as Balasana (child's pose), Uttanasana (standing forward fold), and Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold).
However, there is no anatomical support for yoga teachers' choice to put students with low back pain immediately into a forward-folding position.
As you know, I love to talk about the mind-body connection and how we can use our minds to our advantage in every realm of life. One of the leaders in this arena is Kelly McGonigal, PhD. She is also a yoga teacher, so I love her approach and her dedication to relieving people's pain.
Be aware, though: If you watch her segment on Yoga for Back Pain, two of the four moves she advises doing are not usually good for low-back-pain. If you've been my client or taken any of my Yoga without Back Pain classes, you know exactly which moves I am talking about!
Most yoga teachers make the same mistake McGonigal has made. That reality was the inspiration behind my posting of "why yoga classes can make back pain worse" on my YouTube channel. My functional fitness background continues to serve me well as I delve deeper and deeper into the worlds of yoga and back-pain management . . .
Jonah Lehrer, author of the new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, recently wrote a fantastic piece for Wired magazine called, "Trials and Errors: Why Science is Failing Us."
The entire article is worth a quiet, concentrated perusal.
The section of greatest interest to readers of this blog may well be the section on back pain. Lehrer discusses the oft-documented finding that vertebral disc damage (such as herniation and bulging discs) is not correlated with pain. Medical journals have been reporting these results for more than a decade, yet physicians have continued to use MRIs and x-rays to "diagnose" back-pain patients with disc damage--even when that diagnosis does nothing to explain the pain a patient is experiencing or guide their treatment.
This piece by Elizabeth Landau on CNN.com is a beautiful account of how mindfulness can change the shape of both physical and emotional pain.
Back pain is the type of pain that I see and work with most frequently in my events and classes. When a person is experiencing pain--or is accustomed to feeling pain--the mind runs amok with negative thinking. Whether it be anxiety, depression, blame, shame, or the anger that Monty Reed (in Landau's piece) describes, those negative emotions actually cause pain to increase or intensify. Judging yourself for having a particular feeling or emotion, or believing you are victimized and disempowered, can cause anyone's back to hurt!
HealthDay News just posted a brief review of recent research published in the Journal of Pain by Leong, Kano, & Johansen that shows a connection between spousal communication and physical pain.
The topic of this study supports my whole existence as a back-care and yoga practitioner. Part of what makes my work so effective is my unwavering validation of my clients' emotions and lived experience. In graduate school, I focused my study on the methods of interpersonal communication that foster trust, respect, and partnership when one party is facing difficult life changes or emotional upheaval.
Unfortunately, most couples have not completed such communication training. So when one spouse is in pain, the pain-free spouse is inadequately trained to actually help the other feel supported and "heard." Yet, that emotional support is crucial to the healing process. Without such emotional support, people can cope very poorly with pain and, in fact, hold on to pain for decades . . . or a lifetime.
I'm so happy to read major peer-reviewed medical journals are publishing this type of psycho-social-medical research. Pain research has typically been focused on medications (which are more addictive than they are effective) and surgical interventions (which are shown to be less effective than just about any other pain treatment over the long-term).
Dr. Nortin Hadler and Dr. John Sarno were interviewed on The People's Pharmacy to discuss their vast body of research about the mind's implication in the experience of back pain.
Having worked with clients with back, knee, ankle, foot, shoulder, neck, and generalized pain, I can attest to the power of the mind in the treatment of pain--above and beyond physical treatment modalities.
This body-mind connection is the rationale behind my work with clients, which always includes a wellness coaching component. I realized that, while I could train back-pain clients to do back- and core-strength exercises very effectively and relieve their pain within minutes of working with them, a handful of my students had their pain return (or move around) despite continuing their prescribed exercises with perfect execution. I learned very quickly that the mind can have unbounded control over the body's experience of pain. So much so that people with back pain undergo surgery, injections, manipulations, and astronomical medical bills trying to alleviate their pain, and nothing works. The simple reason is that for some chronic pain sufferers, the physical body is not the source of the lingering pain.
Drs. Hadler and Sarno have written and presented brilliantly on the power of the mind to create and alleviate back pain. I highly recommend all of their books, most recently Dr. Nortin Hadler's Stabbed in the Back and Dr. John Sarno's The Divided Mind.
(If you're in the U.S., I recommend using the Indie Store's bookstore finder to locate a local bookstore from which to buy these books, rather than ordering from a big-name store. Here's the link.
Listen to Dr. Hadler's brilliant interview.
Sara Hauber, MA
Coach, listener, observer, writer, and erstwhile teacher; constantly curious
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