Yoga and chronic back pain
I really wanted to share my story for anyone who has suffered a back injury or who experiences back pain regularly.
One morning early May last year, a week before I was due to fly to Ibiza for a little child-free holiday with my husband and our close friends, I woke up, got out of bed and clunk. I felt a sharp stabbing pain in my lower back which shot down my legs. I couldn’t stand straight, the pain was radiating around the front of my hips and all down my legs, front and back now. I don’t know how, but I somehow got all the children ready for school, dragged myself into the car and began the school drop offs. I was actually feeling very sick from the pain and started to worry there was something seriously wrong. I managed to see a doctor later that day who confirmed it was coming from my lower back and I rest for at least 6 weeks (which as it turns out is very outdated information). I was prescribed a load of strong anti-inflammatories and then to see a physio. She told me, as back pain run in my family, it was a disc issue and with treatment and rest, I was just going to have to manage the pain from now on. Hmm, a future of pain and immobility? Yoga had been part of my life for many years, a practice that supported my physical body but also my mental health too. I couldn’t imagine being stuck and unable to move as I had done for a long time. So I strapped icepacks to my back, went home, popped a couple of anti-inflammatories (which did nothing by the way!) rolled out my mat, crawled onto it and lay in Savasana for a good while why I had a little talk with myself. I repeated a little mantra again and again - ‘not my story, not my story’.
I didn’t know the ins and outs of a prolapsed disc at this stage but I knew I had to keep moving. The following day I saw a chiropractor who confirmed movement was key here and to keep practicing yoga, albeit very very gently as well as regular chiropractic treatment. The full prolapse had probably began very slowly over time, the centre of the lumbar disc slowly bulging through a weakness in the outer part of the disc, until it bulged so much it was pressing on the nerves running down my leg and the pain was finding all neural pathways to travel around my lower body sending pain everywhere. What had caused it remains a bit of a mystery. I’ve birthed four children, and have carried infants for many years, and most likely I would have had a weakness here to begin with. Maybe this is the reason.
I continued to practice yoga at home for a couple of months and slowly slowly began to feel a little more mobile. I attended yin classes and restorative classes at this point. Back bends and twists were impossible and it was so frustrating being unable to get in to these poses which I had done quite easily before. Every day for about 3 months the pain was there. Constant and stabbing due to nerve root pain. I was still unable to properly stand up tall, and laughing, coughing or sneezing had to be prepared for well in advance (holding on to the nearest surface to take my weight and looking up - I really looked ridiculous!) but I was continuing to do my stretches every morning and meditating. Had I not, I’m sure I would have started to feel very depressed at this point as my recovery was taking such a long time. To manage the pain I used CBD oil and turmeric which definitely took the edge off the worst of it. I also made sure to consume a lot of collagen-rich foods and drank bone broth daily to help support my joints and aid support of my connective tissues. Towards to end of the summer I was noticing a couple of things. Firstly that my flexibility was slowly returning, that I was definitely more mobile and secondly that my pain was easing. I was left with very little strength however and my balance was pretty non-existent. I went to more and more strength-building classes and held my asanas longer, gradually sinking deeper and breathing into each one. I felt stronger and more positive after each class and actually felt like I was healing. It really was amazing.
It was around this time that I knew I had to further my journey with yoga and contacted my yoga teacher to enquire in to teacher training and if it would be right for me. My teacher was happy to welcome me on to the course, even with my back injury and my very reduced mobility at this point. I’ve continued to grow and learn and marvel at this incredible practice. Yoga is such a huge part of my life. I’m now half way through my teacher training and can’t imagine a life without yoga in it. I truly believe I would still be in chronic pain and experiencing much reduced mobility had I not moved and stretched and practiced every day. My recovery however is on-going. My focus is not only on flexibility, but strength, mobility and balance too. I practice as much as possible with blocks, as in Bridge Pose in the picture above, to build strength in my core, reminding myself to hug in to my midline and strengthen my posterior chain. I avoid Navasana or Boat Pose, as the weight on my lumbar spine is still unbearable here. But I’m getting there. I will get there, and one day I hope to teach people like me who want yoga for their recovery, who see it as an investment to their physical health and who need it for their whole being. So I'd encourage you not to despair and feel you have to stop your practice if you experience chronic back pain. Seek the support of an experienced teacher to guide and support you. Go with what feels right and know when to stop when it doesn't.
Oh and if you’re wondering did I go to Ibiza in the end, the answer is yes. I even managed to spend an entire night dancing with my friends. I was temporarily numbed by alcohol and laughter - I don’t recommend this (numbing with alcohol that is!) but it shows how desperate I was and also how amazing the human body is. I still had an amazing holiday, in spite of ridiculous back pain. My happiness at being in the sun surrounded by friends, laughter, music and gorgeous food overrode my pain. That, and a lot of cocktails!
NB. This is my personal story and experience. Please please if you are in the same situation find your path to mobility and get help anywhere you can. Your doctor will be able to refer you for MRI’s and to the best consultant for your situation. Any sudden pain should always be investigated by your GP.