Back pain : Don’t blame your bed, blame your head!

A personal story of overcoming persistent low back pain.

I hear this in clinic a lot, “I even bought a new mattress and it still hasn’t improved”.  The mattress that was minding its own business for many years, that provided many comfy nights, suddenly becomes the target of blame, and gets replaced at the drop of a hat! I am speaking from my own personal experience here also, having bought an orthopaedic mattress when I complained of back pain from 2001 until 2007 –  more on this later.  We are going to discuss the array of myths and public perceptions surrounding back pain.  An old mattress being a cause of, or contributory factor to back pain, is one such myth.

There is a brilliant article in the Irish Independent by an established Irish physiotherapist and researcher named Kieran O’Sullivan and another physio Mary O’Keefe from the University of Limerick.  It looks at the top fifteen things you didn’t know about back pain, and in doing so, it really turns the historical social beliefs on their head. The link is –

With this blog post, I want to let you in on my own personal experience with back pain, to showcase how some of these public perceptions of back pain can hinder recovery.

Note: Better you read the article in the Irish independent first, or have it open as you read this article so you can refer to it.

My experience is a great example of how poorly I understood the ins-and-outs of back pain, making it a good patient case study for this blog.

The problem started long before I became a physio.  In fact the back pain completely resolved in the same year that I started studying physiotherapy in Leeds, and there is a perfectly logical reason for this.  First, let’s step back in time to 2001, I was 19, and in college in UCC.  I spent the previous summer caddying on the Old Head of Kinsale, and the plan was to do the same for the summer of ’01.  Part of being a caddie was the expectation to carry two golf bags at the same time for five and a half hours each day, if you were lucky enough to get out at all.  It all depended on how well you got on with the Caddymaster! I noticed a gradual onset of back pain during that summer.  It was certainly worse in the mornings, I can still remember the stiffness across my back which would drive me out of bed preventing anything resembling a sleep-in.  Looking back now, I can see the mistakes I made in dealing with this back pain.  Here they are for all to see.

  • I presumed that it was the carrying of heavy golf bags that was damaging my back, even though none of my friends who were caddying had pain (see point number 8 on the Indo article).
  • My mam, who had a history of back pain herself, also reinforced my belief in blaming caddying.
  • I tried to put up with it for too long, then I saw a physio, chiropractor and osteopath, in that order, over a number of years. Each one pinpointed a different reason for my back pain and took a different approach in their treatment. None of them explained the situation or asked about my beliefs around the back pain.
  • The chiropractor told me my pelvis was out of alignment (see point number 4), the physio felt my feet were the cause of my back pain and prescribed expensive orthotics. The osteopath scanned my back, revealing ‘extremely tight muscles’, represented by a threatening black colour on the scan result (see point 3) and went full steam ahead with spinal manipulations.
  • While drifting between endless health professionals, I came to the decision that an orthopaedic mattress would certainly help. It didn’t!
  • I continued to put up with the pain – I didn’t have a clue as to what was causing it at this stage, as I’d been told a variety of reasons already.

Then one sunny day in Leeds during my physio training, we were observing low back movements and what exactly constituted normal movement patterns.  That was my Eureka moment.  The other students noticed how I wasn’t moving my lower back freely.  I was compared to a woodpecker!  The lecturer at the time offered to help me out.  She was to become the sole reason why my pain eventually faded.  She started by reassuring me that there was no damage to my back and that the pain would resolve with improved understanding of persistent pain and the importance of normal movement.  We then worked on hunting the woodpecker, and normalising my movement patterns.  She explained about pain and how it is not always related to damage (point number 3, again).  My pain was strongly influenced by my worry and concern over the years and also my lack of understanding on the topic of pain (see number 6 and 15).  I had such a weight lifted from my shoulders that day that I soon began to notice a reduction in my symptoms.  The realisation that there was nothing structurally wrong with my spine gave me the go-ahead to get on with my life and get working on my movement patterns.

That was eight years ago, now I am helping patients to achieve the same goal as I did, on a daily basis. Does this sound a little like yourself? That is, do you have general low back pain lasting for longer than three months, either following an injury or for no obvious reason? If you do, go see a physiotherapist with a special interest in persistent pain management (ask them if this is one of their specialities, or check their website). They are equipped with the knowledge and skills to help you help yourself.

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