Pain Is Not Always a Four-letter Word

Michelle’s story

About ten years ago, I was involved in a car accident. It didn’t seem that dramatic at the time – just your run-of-the-mill launch off a stray pile of construction debris, a series of rolls through the air with engine screaming (onlookers too), then a last minute explosion as I dived for cover. Okay, so maybe it was a rear-ender, but that doesn’t make it any less serious. Unfortunately, if it doesn’t look dramatic, a lot of people can find it difficult getting their heads around the concept that people might be hurt as a result. I mean, I looked normal – no cuts, no bruises, but inside something wasn’t right. I soon found out that my neck and back had suffered some hard core soft tissue damage (excuse the confusing grammar, but you know what I mean).

Prior to my accident, I’d played a lot of sport, so I knew about injuries – remove the hockey stick, slap on some ice, rest and pretty soon you’re as good as new, so my attitude was the same with this injury. Maybe skip the part about the hockey stick – but essentially I expected with rest and treatment I would get better.

I iced, I rested, I treated – but I didn’t get any better. In fact, I seemed to be getting worse. The experts told me my job wasn’t helping – lots of craning over a desk or peering up at ceilings (don’t ask). Pretty soon I was in a serious cycle of pain. I couldn’t do most of the things I could before and the things I could made my pain significantly worse.

I’d suffer through work, go home to bed, then start again the next day. Weekends were spent doing as little as possible. Most of the time I was trying everything I could think of to make the pain go away. But I couldn’t think – the pain and the ineffectual painkillers were making it hard to concentrate.

My sporting career came to a sudden and rather jarring halt. Even something as simple as walking drove steel spikes into the base of my skull at every step. My social life withered and died and pretty soon my mood was sinking faster than the Titanic.

Was all lost? Hopeless? Doomed?

Well I’m sitting at my laptop writing this and I feel okay. I’m not clutching a hot or cold pack like a rationed packet of rice and I’d pass a drug test with flying colours. I still have to get up from my chair every twenty minutes or so and some days I just have to give an activity a miss or put a time limit on myself.

So what’s changed? How did I break the cycle?

A few things have happened along my journey that have had a huge positive impact (yes, I’m just trying to prove that I can say “impact” without curling up into the foetal position), and generally speaking they involved change – something I’d spent my life avoiding. But it turned out change was necessary, and good. One of those changes has made a significant difference and that’s what I want to talk about now.

Physiotherapy has been very important to my general well-being since the accident. For a long time, it was the only thing that seemed to give me any pain relief, albeit short-lived. Therein lay the problem – the benefits were short-lived. Sometimes I would go to physio during the day, then return to work, only to find myself back where I started at the end of the day. I felt I was barely making any progress, and sometimes I seemed to go backwards.

I saw a number of physiotherapists over the years, but eventually I found myself with Sarah. She wasn’t like other physios I’d been to. She practiced something called Feldenkrais.

I’d come across that name before. A specialist I saw years ago mentioned it, but at the time I thought he said Felden-Christ, which sounded more like a crazed religious cult to me.

Years later I discovered a colleague’s wife was a practitioner. I remember telling her about my neck and back pain and she said to me, ‘You know you keep talking about your neck and back as though they’re two separate things’.
What the heck was she talking about? Of course they’re separate things! Sure, technically I suppose they’re joined, but one has nothing to do with the other. Sometimes my neck hurts when my back doesn’t, and visa versa. Ha! How do you explain that?

I hate to say it, but turns out she was right. Luckily I had plenty of time to come to terms with the fact that I knew nothing about my own body and how it behaves.

My brain likes science so generally speaking, I would say that in the past I haven’t been as open to things that I perceive as “alternative”. Luckily, by the time I met Sarah, I was feeling as though I was willing to give anything a go.

I have to admit, my first impressions of Feldenkrais were mixed. Sarah wanted to know what I wanted to get from my treatment. ‘Why is she asking me that?’ I thought. ‘It’s obvious – I want you to fix me!’

The treatment itself was different to any of my previous experiences. Sarah seemed to be gently guiding muscles, or tugging on limbs. I kept waiting for her to dig her elbow in. Why wasn’t this treatment hurting?

At the end of the session, Sarah asked me to sit up. I couldn’t believe what I was feeling. It was different, unfamiliar. Usually I felt as though I had no control over my head, that it was sort of waggling around like a balloon on a very rigid stick, but I felt support, like a solid foundation. It didn’t last very long, but that was because my body had trained itself to adopt positions that it thought would be the least painful. What I had dismissed was the possibility that there might be more comfortable positions at all. I firmly believed that my neck couldn’t feel any better, that it wasn’t related to how I arranged my body, or how I held my head, or what I did with my eyes.

‘That’s amazing,’ I commented. ‘How did you do that?’
‘I didn’t do that,’ she said. ‘You did it. It’s your body. I just helped you.’
What? What did she mean, I did it? My body couldn’t do that…. could it?

It took me ages to get my head around the fact that even the most skilled practitioner couldn’t make my body do something it wasn’t capable of doing. But there I was – feeling as though I could hold my head up for the first time in years.

It has taken a while, but I now believe other things are possible. Mostly I need lots of proof (there’s that science brain again!), but I don’t have to look hard to find it.

For example, I love playing drums, and in the past bashing the heck out of a few skins has landed me in a heap of pain. Last year I was asked to play in a gig so I spoke to Sarah a few months beforehand and we worked specifically on that activity. I went to a few classes, and exercises were tailored to suit. I have to admit that a few times I couldn’t see how the class had anything to do with drumming, but at some point Sarah would say, ‘now pretend you’re playing drums,’ and the application would become clear. Now I can bash away (sorry, I mean tap rhythmically) without increasing pain levels, and sometimes my back even feels better afterward!

If I want to do something that seems impossible, I set a goal and work towards it with Sarah’s help. My current goal is to play electric guitar standing up. To help, I’m doing a class on headstands. Sure, it doesn’t seem related, but when you think about it, it’s the same thing, just upside down!

So now I’m doing so much more. Yes, sometimes I do too much and slip back into that old cycle, but the difference is I don’t stay there for long. Feldenkrais has helped me to understand better what’s going on with my body. Instead of thinking ‘Oh my God, my head is about to fall off!’ every time I feel a muscle spasm, I can say, ‘I feel squeezing around my torso, so I need to work on my breathing and do these exercises’.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still learning, and I don’t always get it right, but the difference is I don’t freak out or get overrun by feelings of helplessness like I used to. And yes, my body is all connected. Now when my wrist is sore, I don’t think, ‘I’ve done something to my wrist’, I think, ‘There’s something going on somewhere else that’s causing this.’

Through this Feldenkrais journey, I’ve also learnt independence, so my first thought when I feel increased pain is ‘what can I do?’, not ‘I can’t cope, I need to see the physio’ (insert panicked tone). Sure, sometimes it turns out I do need some help from Sarah, but those occasions are becoming fewer. Most of the time the work I do with Sarah is related to a specific goal I want to achieve.

I look at this as a learning experience. When my body does something different, I learn something new, even if it’s kind of painful at the time.

One of the hardest things I’ve found about chronic pain (apart from the chronic pain of course) is feeling like I have no control. Understanding what’s going on with my body, learning how to organise myself differently and teaching my body to find and remember more comfortable ways of doing things has all helped me feel more in control.

I used to get frustrated that I couldn’t do the things I used to be able to do (and strangely things I could never do before anyway), but now I believe more is possible and instead of feeling frustrated, I set about working towards achieving what I want to do. Don’t get me wrong, nothing is fast or easy, but I now realise my body has the capacity to learn comfortable, supportive postures, just like it’s learned uncomfortable, rigid, unsupportive positions trying to protect me from pain.

I feel hopeful for my future and believe that one day, not too far away, I will be free from chronic pain. What? Did I just say that? I can’t believe I made such a positive and optimistic statement! It seems Feldenkrais has helped me in more far-reaching ways than I could have imagined!