I had a breast reduction at 19. My boobs were massive by the time I was 13 / 14. I gave up sprinting and long-jumping along with any hope of wearing pretty tops and pretty bras. My shoulders hurt and my back constantly ached from standing. So by the time I was 19 I decided I had had enough. The boobs were going and my life would begin again. Running and strapless tops here I come.
Then I was in a car accident. I got whiplash. The proper type. Not the claim blame type which just goes away. I had severe shoulder pain. I spent a year in physio working on my shoulder. I ran out of credits with my insurance company who insisted I see a specialist. I turned up only to find I was seeing a neurologist. I was so embarrassed. “I think there’s been a mix up, I’ve hurt my shoulder and just need you to sign off some more physio sessions I said”. He spent some time looking at me and then told me “there’s nothing wrong with your shoulder, it’s your neck. You’ve damaged a facet joint but it’s so minimal you won’t see anything on a scan which is why it wasn’t picked up but it’s impinging a nerve as this is giving you the pain in your shoulder and the tingling in your hand.”
This was the first time I started to appreciate that where you feel the pain isn’t always what is causing the pain.
I started seeing a Pain Specialist, had some injections into my neck which helped a little and then told they could “burn” the nerve to stop it firing which didn’t sound so helpful to me. “It wasn’t that bad” I told myself. I can live with this.
A few years later I fell running for a train. I wasn’t drunk I promise. I hurt my ankle and was then told I needed surgery to repair it. I had the surgery and whilst it was technically repaired I had exactly the same pain post surgery as pre. I did my physio, did a lot of Pilates (this was all before I trained as a teacher) and told myself that “well this is as good as it gets” and got on with it.
I then decided to train as an instructor with Polestar Pilates who are the most wonderful training body. The level of detail they go into really is astounding. It’s very rehab based but you realise very quickly that really everyone has some sort of rehab need. And that rehab is really just about making your body work better, be more efficient so it’s pain free.
This is when everything changed. I learned myself that we are not meant to be in pain. That it’s not something you’re supposed to just put up with. That you can change it. You can feel better.
Now let me make this clear. Pain is a very big topic and I’m not pretending to cover everything off here. But here are the things I find myself saying time and time again to my clients.
The LANGUAGE you use to describe your body affects how it feels
The language you use about yourself really matters when it comes to pain. Your “bad leg” will always be “bad” if you label it as that. Your “painful shoulder” will be in pain and your “weak ankle” will always stay weak. And of course we have the “bad back”…well…
Change the way you talk about your body and it will change the way it behaves.
Chronic pain is often linked to your emotions
This is not to say it’s not real. It’s very real. Your body is a system of communication and it’s always communicating with you about how it feels both on a physical level but also about your relationships, careers, lifestyle etc. The you don’t listen it shouts. And shouting is pain.
I have worked extensively in rehabilitating people with long term pain and I would say nearly every time we get to a point where someone realises that instead of “I just put the bins out and my back went” actually “my mum died suddenly around the same time” and the penny drops.
We store our emotions in our body. And when you get an area moving which hasn’t moved in a while, because it’s been holding on or keeping everything inside, then you might feel emotional and notice a memory that you had blocked out.
So understand that pain isn’t always a pathology. It can often begin with a life event and later become a pathology such as a bulging disc.
A PAIN-FREE MOVEMENT experience is literally the best medicine
This is well documented. If you can move in a way which is pain free then your nervous system starts to recalibrate. Because often long term pain can be more about the pain receptors being heightened than anything physical. A pain-free movement experience starts to retrain the body as to what is possible.
Surgery often doesn’t always FIX the pain
I have worked with so many people over the years who’ve had surgery and, like me, afterwards said, “I don’t really feel pain free and I expected to”. This is because you had a movement pattern that caused the issue. Maybe the way you walk led to compression in your spine which cause you to prolapse a disc. You had surgery to remove the disc and fuse the spine. The problem was removed right? Wrong! You still move the exactly same way only now you’re putting pressure on the disc above or below the one you had removed. So now another area is inflamed.
As well as any surgery you must learn to move with ease, un-learning any bad habits and re-learning efficient ones.
In fact the best results I’ve ever seen from surgery are when a client has come in before surgery to work on improving their movement patterns so they can much more quickly feel the befit of their surgery.
Your body can literally do ANYTHING
Our posture isn’t fixed. We’re not born with it. It changes throughout our life and can continue to change. Our brains are equally plastic and continue to be shaped through out life depending on our experiences.
We have the power to shift everything.
Master the EASE
In terms of movement, learning to move with ease, mastering the basic strategies with utter efficiency is the key to being able to get stronger and fitter without injury and pain. When you meet restrictions in your movement this is exactly where you need to be. If you get stuck on your roll up, spend time on the "stuck" section rather than just giving up because you can't do it. Unless you have been told you shouldn’t do something by a medical professional often it’s the lack of movement in an area where you’re going to get the most benefit when you learn to move it.
I spent 3 years trying to extend backwards over the ladder barrel in the studio. Spine extension was so painful for me with my injury but I kept working on the strategies I needed and one day I realised I was ready to attempt it again and it felt easy. It still feels easy 8 years later.
I promise you that this approach will last you a lifetime. But that also means it's not a quick fix. It takes time but it's well worth it.
LOWER BACK PAIN is often caused by the wrong muscles working too hard
Let go of the “I must do more to sort out my back” approach. The truth is lower back pain is often caused by your global muscles doing too much and your local muscles not doing enough. Pilates is all about getting the local muscles to do their thing, not just in class but in life. Any active engaging will only ever work the global muscles. You want the subtly in movement.
This is going to be your life long friend.