"All I Did Was Cough!"

"All I Did was Cough, and suddenly I had this sharp pain in my lower back. And ever since then I've had back problems."

That first experience of sharp back pain is an eye-opener. What happened? Why did a simple little cough cause a back problem?

One little phrase: "supression of symptoms."

Let's go back a little way.

Escaping the Tiger

Let's say there's a local man-eating tiger, and let's call him Richard Parker (apologies to The Life of Pi.)

Richard Parker has caught you napping and is chasing you round the garden. You find that for a few brief moments you forget that your lower back has been feeling uncomfortable after going jogging. In fact, not only do you sprint faster than you've ever sprinted before, but you float effortlessly up into the branches of a handy tree you would normally struggle to climb.

If your back is usually sore, for that few moments it certainly wasn't: getting up the tree was more important than nursing your back, and your body switched off the pain signals (and any worries you might have about looking silly) to save your life. But when the tiger tamer comes and leads off Richard Parker, snarling, and you're having a stiff drink, THAT might be the moment you notice your back's much more sore. You've hurt it in the rush up the tree. Damaged back? Mauled to death? There's an example of a GOOD reason for damaging your back!

What's the Difference Between a Tiger and a Tax Return?

Man-eating tigers aren't a common problem in York or even New York, but working hard under stress can have pain-suppressing effects remarkably like Richard Parker breathing down your neck. As far as our bodies are concerned, stress is danger, and when we're in danger we blot out pain until the crisis is past.

When you were escaping the tiger, your body was quite ready to ignore the usual rules and even risk injury for a few moments to get out of Richard Parker's clutches. Damaging your knee or even your back is less important than being eaten alive.

When I'm slaving over my tax, and it absolutely has to be finished for the end of last week, I too can ignore injuries, tiredness and age-- for a while.

But here's where Richard Parker and my tax return are different.

No Recovery Time

The stressful work situation goes on and on. Work breathes down your neck day and night, sometimes for weeks, or permanently. Your body stays in overdrive, suppressing minor symptoms, waiting until there's less pressure to take stock and lick wounds. When the tax is done, the quarterly report takes over. The pressure's continuous, so my body can't stop suppressing symptoms, take stock and repair.

Building Up to a Crisis

See where the cough comes in? No? Well, if you go on ignoring small discomforts, you go on injuring yourself more and more, with less and less awareness that you're doing so. But there may come a time when your body can take no more, and simply has to stop. There are no options left but to lie down and wait for your back to heal. Too much damage has accumulated, and your back is not fit to work any more.

If you've really, finally broken your back, you're going to have to negotiate terms with Richard Parker, because running is no longer an option. This time stress hormones aren't going to help you.

In the office, the situation is rather similar. With no chance to notice, take stock and repair, the damage builds, and chronic stress goes on supressing news of the damage. And there is only so much damage your body can take. One day, after a tiny cough in your tight, strained chest (ribs attach to your spine, which is why coughing or sneezing can hurt your back) the full weight of the damage you're carrying in your body spills over. The results can be serious: chronic, possibly disabling back pain.

Sadly, this is happening to a lot of modern workers. The solution is to get help when your back is uncomfortable, even slightly. You'll save yourself a lot of grief in the long term. Here's an example of what happens if you don't listen to small messages from your body.

"But All I Did Was Cough!"

If a cough, a sneeze or any other tiny little thing seems to "cause" back pain, it suggests there's more here than meets the eye. Your back is probably needing help, and needing it soon. Listen carefully, and listen now. Get some professional help.