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Tips from a professional who’s experienced it

Did you know that 80 per cent of people will experience acute back pain at some point in their lives?

As a physiotherapist for more than 15 years, I’ve treated a lot of clients with back pain. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a story that started with, “It was nothing big, I just bent down to pick up …”

Usually, the object was seemingly insignificant like a pen. For me, it was the last sock at the bottom of the hamper. I reached down to grab it and toss it in the washing machine. Boom.

I had immediate sharp pain in my lower back unlike anything I had personally experienced before. It was difficult to stand. I definitely couldn’t put any weight through my right leg and I had an immediate stress (fight or flight) response with a racing heart, full body sweat and nausea. It was scary. I suddenly understood what clients had described to me in the past.

Fortunately, using my knowledge as a physiotherapist to analyze my symptoms, I quickly understood that I had not likely experienced a major injury. I was able to lean on my training to build a plan right away.

Many of my clients have told me over the years they “hear my voice” in their head as they’re doing something. I was having big talks with myself during those initial few days! I avoided sitting as much as possible, kept my arms, legs and back moving within the limitations of the sharp pain and continued to coach myself through the tougher moments.

One of the most important mantras I kept repeating to myself, sometimes out loud, was that the pain I was feeling when I was moving was hurting but not harming. It was intense and unpleasant but I knew the movements I was doing were not causing damage. The tissues were just irritated (or cranky) and they would be happier if I kept moving instead of sitting or laying still, which was what I really wanted to do.

After a few days of this gentle movement approach, I started to feel some improvement. I could still provoke the muscle spasms in my back if I moved too quickly or the ‘wrong’ way but I knew I was on the right path. During the next three weeks, I gradually increased my activity level and found my sitting tolerance progressively improved. Within a month I was back to nearly all my regular activities with very minimal discomfort and am confident that within two months of the injury, I’ll be back to normal.

When I spoke to a fellow physiotherapist on the day of the injury, she reminded me to keep moving. Although I knew she was right, following through on that plan was difficult. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I would encourage you to reach out to a physiotherapist for guidance so you can have a plan to help you move towards better health and comfort.

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