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Back to basics

A RECENT survey found that although workers are taking fewer sickies, the usual suspects are keeping them away from the office: stress, anxiety and depression, and good oldfashioned back pain.

In fact, back pain is a particular bane of workers doing manual labour, delivery work, repetitive tasks such as packing, and those in sedentary roles.

Growing numbers of white-collar workers fall into the latter category. Back pain is the inevitable consequence, with an estimated eight out of 10 of us hit by a dodgy back at some point. And it’s not just us mere mortals who suffer — Hollywood star, George Clooney has complained of suffering from terrible back pain for years, citing an injury sustained on a film set.

I feel his pain. Decades of lower-back problems finally graduated to full-on sciatica recently — a whole different order of agony. The evil sciatica (when the sciatic nerve that runs from the back of your pelvis, through your buttocks and all the way down both legs, gets compressed or irritated) struck last Christmas, after an especially stressful and overworked period, sending scalding pains shooting from my back, through the left buttock and down the hamstring into my calf. Not fun.

Over the years, I've enriched a wide variety of backcrackers, from osteopaths to chiropractors, physios to acupuncturists, deep-tissue massage bruisers to dainty shiatsu girls; yoga, hot packs, cold compresses, anti-inflammatory pills . . . been there, done it, got the invoice. And even the best of these approaches share a common flaw: variously effective at relieving your symptoms, but when the pain's drained away you slip back into old, destructive habits. For me, that means walking with Chaplin-esque splayed feet; a terrible stoop I picked up as a shy, gangly teenager; forgetting to prise myself away from the Mac every now and then; and my passion for running, a seemingly healthful pastime that's actually a pounding assault on your musculoskeletal system, especially on unyielding pavements.

I'd heard about posture-correcting approaches such as Alexander Technique and Pilates but, like most blokes, imagined them to be rather dull. I then happened upon something called Health Through Optimum Movement, which has a dual-pronged approach. First, osteopathy twists and kneads your crooked spine back into alignment. And then you embark on a corrective exercise programme.

This muscle stretching and strengthening ensures you don't slip back into your old slouch and, exponents claim, will keep you pain-free for life. Intrigued, I dragged my battered bod to an assessment with Jeff Murray. I was impressed by his rigorous checks on every inch of my body, testing flexibility, strength and the angles of major joints. He quickly diagnosed the problem: an overly tight left quadricep tugging my pelvis out of position, thus squashing the sciatic nerve. After a few sessions with one of the resident osteopaths and painfree again, we're embarking on the corrective exercises.

We meet again in a small personal-training area and, while I stretch that troublesome quad, the softly spoken Murray outlines his philosophy. “When I set up the clinic I'd been in the fitness industry for 10 years,” he says. “Everyone wants a quick fix, but long term health and wellbeing depend on the choices we make.”

These choices include some obvious stuff, such as getting enough downtime and sleep (a key but undervalued component of physical and mental health); eating a balanced, junk-free diet; finding a happy medium between stress and boredom.

But get Murray started on exercise and his eyes really light up. “Our bodies and minds crave movement,” he says. “We are designed to move and if we don't we become ill and eventually die prematurely, as our vital organs, muscles, bones and tissue break down from under use.”

He rails against the gym, full of hi-tech machines that work single body parts while gym-goers sit, reading magazines. Instead, says Murray, we must use our bodies as evolution intended:

“We need to do real, functional exercise: to squat, bend, lunge, push, pull, twist, walk or jog, sprint and jump.”

Few of us possess the kind of lithe, injury-free bodies that allow this kind of movement. Take mine: along with the inflexible thigh I have a pronounced curvature in the lumbar spine, resulting in a muscle-stressing protruding belly. Years of back pain, says Murray, have “switched off” my transversal abdominus (TVA), one of the internal muscles that make up our spine-supporting core.

Along with a daily regime of stretching, I'm told that unless I strengthen my TVA, the dreaded sciatica could return. Chastened, I stick to the routine and after a few weeks the pain has become a distant memory and my stomach's flatter, I feel looser and my posture's better.

But I wonder why we have so many back problems these days? Osteopath Danny Williams says technology's partly to blame. “The biggest problems right now are smartphones and laptops,” he says. “Loads of my clients complain of ‘Black-Berry thumb', injury caused by emailing. And because so many of us are hunched over laptops or have poorly set-up desks, we sit in a rounded, hunched position that creates severe pain across the shoulders, neck and back.”

Another approach making a big noise at the moment is Dynamic Pilates. Trainer Neil Dimmock says: “Guys say they do loads of crunches in the gym, so their abs are pretty strong. Then we ask them to hold a static position and they just fall apart, because their core is really weak.” Just because you've sculpted a six-pack doesn't mean you have a strong core.

I'm a case in point, with overdeveloped outer abdominals disguising a weak, under-trained core. I'm happy to report that, after the initial osteopathy and a few sessions with Murray, not only has that horrid sciatica vanished but I'm pain-free for the first time in years. It's hard to overstate how liberating this is: not only the absence of chronic pain, which makes life a misery, but being able to jog or kick a ball around with my son. As fellow sufferers know, when the back goes so do most of life's pleasures.