My back pain story starts with a lower back injury, which led to repetitive strain injury. (It's often the case that back trouble and limb trouble go hand in hand, so to speak.)
After physiotherapy and osteopathy I learned to use self help to maintain and improve my health. The Alexander Technique was my introduction to learning to take care of myself better.
Aged 23, I fell down some stone steps and landed on the base of my spine. I had a very stiff neck for two days or so, which then gradually disappeared.
Two weeks later, out for a walk in the Yorkshire Dales, my friend had tried to go walking in the Yorkshire Dales in little light sneakers instead of walking boots. I tried to lift her over a muddy puddle (WITHOUT her permission!) She struggled, and there was a brief, sharp pain in my lower back.
We continued our walk and returned home. Later that evening my back pain had got so bad that I couldn't do anything except lie down. I stayed in while my friend went out.
A couple of days later, after a painful 200-mile drive, I got an appointment with an osteopath. After a few cracks, clicks and crunches, some quite uncomfortable, I was much more mobile, but very sore. The osteopath told me I had a twisted pelvis. She also said that if I had come after I had fallen down those steps, the second injury would probably not have happened. I had hardly been aware that the first "injury" (the stiff neck) had been an injury. My pelvis kept drifting "out" again, my back pain kept coming back. I had to keep having more osteopathy. "To keep yourself out of trouble, go and learn the Alexander Technique," said the osteopath. There followed several years of more or less continuous low back pain, undoubtedly not helped by sitting at a computer and no longer being able to run for exercise.
Under considerable stress at work I began to get a very stiff neck. Without warning, my fingers started missing keys on the keyboard, and on the phone keypad. I found myself typing and retyping everything. A few hours later, pressing the keys started getting painful.
Next morning, it was so painful I had to stop working. It was almost impossible to dial a phone number. I left work and drove home. After driving for 200 yards, I realised that I had to stop. My hands hurt too much to continue. I couldn't handle the steering wheel, or deal with vibration from the gear stick. My hands were painful from the vibration.
The first GP I saw gave me painkillers and told me it was just a temporary response to a stressful new job. "Push through it," he said. I decided not to take his advice. The second GP moved my arm around like a chicken drumstick and said I had "recurrent strain injury" and referred me to a more knowledgeable colleague. I didn't like my arm being handled like a piece of chicken so I went to a physiotherapist instead.
The physiotherapist spent more than an hour testing me to find out which movements hurt. I was very surprised when, at the end of this, he told me there was nothing wrong with my hands or fingers.
"It's your neck", he said, and proved it by treating my neck for a few minutes with short, strong pulses with his thumb. My hands stopped hurting. I walked out of his consulting room 4 sessions later with hands that worked, and mostly didn't hurt.
"Improve your upper body strength, and go and learn the Alexander Technique," said the physiotherapist.
After several more years working in IT, my hands were getting worse again. I started using voice recognition software (DragonDictate), changed my mouse, keyboard and chair, monitored my work-breaks carefully, even stood up to work at the computer for six months. My hand pain got worse, and so did my voice, which began to get tight and strained from dictating. I lost my voice easily. I was having trouble sleeping, and waking up uncomfortable all over. My back was hurting much as it usually did. No, it was getting worse so slowly I hardly noticed. Sex hurt. I could hardly imagine a job I'd be able to do full-time. It was getting harder and harder to smile, or to be good company.
I decided to try the Alexander Technique.
I had a series of about 10 lessons that first time. I remember coming out of the first lesson thinking of arrows pointing out of the top of my head, the base of my spine and forwards from my knees. The teacher had moved me gently, first on a table, lying down, then sitting and standing. It felt like we'd done almost nothing.
When I walked out of the room, my body felt heavy and solid, very unfamiliar. I was buzzing all over. I wasn't sure I felt better. I didn't know what to make of this new feeling.
The Alexander teacher said later that every time I came for a lesson, she spent much of it trying to calm my nervous system down before she could teach me anything. My whole body was singing with tension and confusion.
The Alexander Technique is about stopping, thinking about what we want before we move.
At the end of 10 lessons there was some improvement, but no cure for my RSI or my back pain. I had been warned not to expect a cure. But I was interested. There was a lot of sitting and standing, but somehow it was extremely interesting. There was something very simple and very useful slotting into place.
I left my job, cashed my savings and donned a rucksack for almost two years of cheap, rough travel. I had an idea that movement would help, so I decided to write a travel book. One of the odd things I'd noticed before was that my back felt much better after carrying a heavy rucksack (and so did my hands.)
I walked the Coast to Coast through Cumbria, Yorkshire and the North York Moors, 200 miles, with a heavy pack, and got some RSI-like pains in my feet towards the end. They took months to clear up.
I went to Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Iran. I spent my 30th birthday among strangers in Budapest.
In Iran, my new friend Saman's family had an L-shaped sitting room. In the farthest, unused corner of the L was a pile of western-style hospital foyer chairs, very trendy in middle-class Iranian households. "We don't use them any more. We don't like them," said Saman's mother.
When we were in the sitting room, we all sat on the floor. To eat, we laid a mat on the floor and sat round it. My hands were considerably improved.
I was home, and it was time to type it all up, all the hundreds of pages of notes, and turn it into a book. My hands felt good, my back felt reasonable. Two months' typing later, the painful hands were back, and so was the bad back. I thought I'd cracked it. But it looked like my hands would stop me being a writer as well as a computing professional.
I began to have more Alexander Technique lessons.
"This isn't just about chairs, and sitting, is it?" I remember asking. A penny was trying to drop. He kept asking me to let my neck be free, and let my back lengthen and widen. That and touching me gently as he spoke, on the neck and back. As he touched my back, it did lengthen and widen, all by itself. I could feel my spine getting longer, and my shoulder blades feeling softer and more moveable.
Much later, we had a conversation like this:
"How would you walk into a room full of people, feeling nervous, using the Alexander Technique?" the teacher said.
"I'd stop, let my neck be free, let my head go forward and up, let my back lengthen and widen..." "Yes. How would you reach for your mouse without it hurting so much?"
"I'd stop, let my neck be free, let my head go forward and up, let my back lengthen and widen..."
"Yes. How would you jump off a cataract with a thick cable round your neck, using the Alexander Technique?"
"Yes! Well stopped! How would you pick up that piece of paper..."
"I'd let my neck be free..."
"Yes. Don't forget to Stop first. You're getting it. How would you kiss your future wife, let's say just before proposing to her?"
"I'd stop, let my neck..."
"Yes. How would you shake hands with your interviewer at the beginning of an interview for a job you really wanted?"
"Yes. Why do we use a chair?"
"I don't know. Because we sit and stand a lot?"
Grant, my teacher, said: "Because it's the hardest thing. Because chairs are the most abominable invention of the human race. Proposing to your girlfriend is for wimps." My back seemed better. My hands were taking their time. But for some reason I was hooked.
It was slowly dawning on me that I needed a profession that did me good, rather than injuring me. During this lesson with Grant, something very beautiful had happened. I had turned the equation around. I needed to do myself good while pursuing my chosen profession. I realised I had considerable power over my own pain-- and over my own ability to react in any situation. I decided to train to be an Alexander Technique teacher.
After two terms of Alexander teacher training (the training takes three years) my painful hands had gone, and so had my bad back.
I'm still learning what Grant was teaching me in that lesson. You can write down what the Alexander Technique is about in half a page, but you can go on learning it for the rest of your life...thanks Grant!
Grant Ragsdale's website is always worth a visit.