As more young people report back pain, Olivia Goldhill explains how she learnt to live with weak spinal discs.
I was 13 when I had my first bout of severe back pain. On holiday in France, I had an accident wakeboarding, which is similar to waterskiing but with a snowboard. I was used to crashing into the waves, but this time as I fell into the water, the sickening pain in my lower back told me something was seriously wrong. An MRI scan taken a few weeks later showed that I had slipped a disc.
The accident proved to be just the start of years of back problems. At 17, I had to take my AS-level exams, each of which lasted three hours, standing up, while at university I sometimes hobbled around, bent forward at 90 degrees. It was hardly the image of a glamorous, bohemian student I’d had in mind.
Nowadays, if I tell anyone I have a bad back at 24, the standard reaction is more likely to be a raised eyebrow than a sympathetic sigh. Backache is still an ailment associated with ageing – or seen as a convenient excuse for absence from college or the office on sunny days.
Yet, as the new academic term begins, recent evidence suggests that growing numbers of young people are suffering from chronic back pain. Last month, a survey of almost 2,400 youngsters by the British Chiropractic Association reported that 37 per cent of those aged 16 to 24 have experienced neck or back pain, while half aged 18 to 34 regularly suffer backache. Experts blame an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, as well as the stress of an exam-driven culture.
My own back problems are partly down to my genes: my father and sister had similar disc injuries at a young age. Discs are jelly-like sacs between each vertebra, which allow us to move flexibly and absorb the shocks of daily life. After my holiday, an MRI scan showed that a disc at the lower end of the spine had started to bulge out (or prolapse) between the vertebrae, and was pressing on the sciatic nerve that ran into my left leg. The wakeboarding fall was likely the final push. Doctors told me I had the “back of a 90-year-old” and a genetic weakness in my discs that would affect me for life.
Doctors were reluctant to operate because of my age and for the next few years I took up Pilates and regularly visited a chiropractor who would manipulate my spine, which seemed to help.
Leaving my genetic weakness aside, sitting in school for eight hours a day, and carrying absurdly heavy rucksacks — filled with at least six hardback textbooks — certainly didn’t help. At first, my friends were sympathetic and offered to help carry my bag, but after a while they got bored with my problems and I learnt to cope with pain as a daily part of life.
I would often have to stand in lessons. The pain got worse. Eventually, when my leg was pricked with a pin and I couldn’t feel it, I was told the disc was pressing so hard on the nerve that there was a risk of paralysis. An operation was my only choice.
Most of the bulging disc was removed and, while no operation is pleasant, experiencing life without pain for the first time in four years was nothing short of wonderful.
The relief was short-lived. I slipped a second disc when I was 20 and at university in Boston. My muscles went into spasm and my spine contorted, so for about a month I was bent forward at 90 degrees and with my hips veering to the right whenever I was standing. I must have looked a bizarre sight. My roommate would hold a glass of ice to my back as I stood hunched over in the dining room, and I walked to class with what could only be described as a lumbering gait.
The most dramatic moment came when, slowly hobbling along the street, I realised I could not take another step. Taken to hospital, I was pumped full of painkillers. As bad luck would have it, the next day I had to fly home to England for a funeral. A six-hour plane journey with a slipped disc is the worst decision I’ve ever made, and I will never complain about horror flights or long delays again.
My back made it impossible to fly back to Boston, so I had to take my exams at home in London. There, I finally went to an osteopath who in my view, helped save my spine. Boniface Verney-Carron (with a practice of the same name) gently moved my limbs into different positions – in fact it felt like he was doing very little but in just one hour-long session he eased my muscle spasm and straightened my spine from a jagged S-shape to a slight wayward curve.
Mr Verney-Carron told me: “Basically, two vertebrae were locked in a certain position by muscle spasm and inflammation. Our work is to try to look at the body as a whole and, by working on your legs, your hips, your pelvis and the whole of your spine, try to gently unwind it.”
Back in Boston the next spring term, a course of epidural injections helped further reduce the pain and my slipped disc seemed to ease back into place. Since then, my back has been as close to normal as it ever will be, though I will never have the healthy spine that someone in their twenties should have.
Nowadays I can mostly stand straight, although sometimes my muscles go into spasm and I find myself temporarily crooked. I religiously practise Pilates to strengthen my inner core, walk regularly and try to stay aware of my posture. Whenever I feel my back seizing up or starting to hurt, I seek help sooner rather than later.
For young people without a genetic vulnerability, most experts advise putting away the computer games, unloading those heavy bags of books (bring back school lockers?) and learning how to sit and stand properly.
Mr Verney-Carron says: “The whole problem arises, not just because children are sitting from the age of five – but because they are sitting badly. If you were taught how to sit properly at school you would have good posture all through life. It’s just a question of education.”
According to Dr Adam Al-Kashi, head of research and education at the charity BackCare, it also means that young people learn how to manage stress. “Ninety per cent of back pain is stress-induced,” he says.
As someone who has seriously considered buying a walking stick, I long ago joined the brigade of naggers warning young people to sit up straight at the dinner table. Teenagers may like to emulate their elders – but bad backs should be postponed for as long as possible.
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