I’ve had back pain ever since I can remember. I always heard adults talk about how their back hurts, so even as a kid, I thought back pain was normal and a sign that I was working hard. That ‘no pain, no gain’ idea was so deeply rooted that I learned to ignore most pain thinking it’s all part of the process of being active. Not until college did I begin to suspect that something was wrong because my back pain was becoming debilitating, and I couldn’t get to class for a week because I threw my back out.
In grad school I finally went to a chiropractor for the very first time. This was the first doctor I saw about my back pain. At that point I’ve had sciatica for years, thinking it’s a nagging high school injury where I pulled my hamstring sprinting in track practice. He looked at the degenerative arthritis, spondylolysis, and misalignment in my spine and told me I probably shouldn’t run anymore since my back couldn’t handle the impact. And of course that I should come see him three times a week.
Luckily I was determined to figure out the back issues that I had and did not stop being active. His words however did have an impact, and I began to rely on other people to help me. I went to doctors and chiropractors and massage therapists and acupuncturists to make me feel better. My view of back pain shifted from it being something ‘normal’ to something that is catastrophic, needing to be fixed by others who know more than me.
I viewed the back pain as external, something that happened to me and as something to get rid of, so I needed solutions from external sources to address it. I learned a lot from these external sources, but I also relied on them for answers. This feeling of ‘otherness’ when it came to my back pain gave away my power to others.
Around the same time I began to discover many new movement disciplines like Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais Method, that focus on self awareness to improve the quality of movement and the sense of well being. The exercises and concepts felt a bit esoteric at first. They were really slow and focused, without a clear goal and a clear right answer. Their aim was to help one build body awareness through careful, almost meditative study. It seemed kind of boring for somebody who was used to lifting weights and running fast, going all out, all of the time.
But my perspective began to shift internally and my reliance on others to manage my back pain began to diminish. My movement quality began to improve. I began to understand that my back including any pain that I was feeling is a part of me and not an issue to be outsourced. It’s something that I own, it’s something that I manage, it’s all mine. No one knows my back better than me, and no one knows better than me what is best for it. It’s about taking ownership. Ownership of my body, my injuries as well as my strengths, and ownership of my ability to fix, heal, feel good, move well, learn, grow, and be aware.
With all my research, I knew that sitting for long periods of time didn’t do my back any favors, and so in grad school I did most of my work on the computer while standing. I even experimented with a treadmill walking desk, although that was far from productive. Around that time numerous articles started to come out, claiming that sitting is the new smoking. I certainly knew that my back was a lot less stiff and a lot less likely to lock up if I spent more time moving rather than sitting. I also felt more energized with less swelling in my legs and feet. So I was always looking for a way to introduce more movement, even to sedentary tasks.
So, when I got my first job out of grad school in a typical office environment, I requested a standing desk. I knew I wouldn’t make it sitting all day. This request was so unusual for my management that they went to HR. The HR department replied that they are able to accommodate a standing desk for me under the ADA regulations provided that I can prove that I have actual issues with my back. So in order for me to be more active in my office environment, I had to go to an orthopedic surgeon who x-rayed my back and confirmed that I have osteoarthritis and a bulging disk.
Of course now standing desks in offices are very commonplace. The importance of reducing the amount of sedentary time throughout the day is becoming widely recognized, but there was a time where I had to prove its necessity. The irony of me needing a doctor’s note to take ownership of my back pain and gain the ability to stand at work did not elude me, but it did elude my HR department at the time.
- When someone tells you not to move, or not to train anymore, question them. That is almost never the right answer.
- Others are there to help, but don’t know your body better than you. Learn from them, but don’t rely on them.
- Take ownership of your body, your injuries, and your ability to heal.
Comment below if you have any nagging injuries and how you deal with them. What does taking ownership mean to you?