An osteopath helped fitness writer Chloe Gray with her back pain and stiff shoulders – but do you need to see one if you don’t have an injury?
There aren’t many things I’d say I’m doing right. I’m not clued up on my finances (as my post-lockdown spending would prove), I don’t like dating and I couldn’t Marie Kondo my wardrobe if you paid me. But I did think that there was one area of my life I was getting right: my workouts.
I prioritised strength training after many years of dealing with scoliosis-induced pain, finding that having strong glutes took the pressure off of my lower back. I’ll admit I was never great at doing enough core work, but I’d add side planks in to develop the left side of my back which was weaker from where my spine twisted.
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I still struggled – one slightly dodgy squat as I attempted a heavier weight and my back would feel red hot for 24 hours and let’s not talk about the inflammation when I’m due on my period. But I was willing to accept that my back would never be happy; as long as I could keep it content and the pain manageable, I was fine.
Only, there was something in the back of my head telling me I was wrong. After spending the year working from home, with on-off access to gyms, I was noticing more niggles than before. Then there were those three lockdown runs I did that wreaked absolute havoc on my joints. With all of these things in mind, I thought that the only logical thing to do was to get it checked out.
So I booked an appointment with osteopath Anisha Joshi, from Osteoallies. She gave me a rude awakening, telling me that if I didn’t sort my back out soon, I’d be at high risk of surgery from a prolapsed disk before I was 30. It was the wake-up call I needed. Rather than simply managing my pain, I needed to fix the problem at its source. Luckily, I was in the right place.
What does an osteopath do?
According to the General Osteopathic Council, osteopathy is a treatment that works with the structure and function of the body to help the skeleton, muscles, ligaments and connective tissues functioning smoothly together.
My first appointment with Anisha began with me telling her my concerns: my scoliosis, my often-stiff right shoulder, my concerns about my desk bound life. Anisha then took a 360-degrees look at my upper body and my posture, prodding parts of my back and chest and asking me to twist to each side. Within a minute, she had a diagnosis.
From years and years of chest tightness that’s caused hunched shoulders, to squashed and tight muscles around the curvature of my spine and a completely wonky pelvis, it’s safe to say there was a lot going on. “Thank god you’ve come to see someone,” Anisha told me, many times over the course of treatment, as she explained that my spine was so out of line it was impossible for my disks to bounce – instead, they’re compressing onto each other every time I move.
She began my treatment with what felt like she was just pressing really, really hard into one spot on my back for a few minutes (like a much more concentrated sports massage). Actually, Anisha was simply “relaxing off” the muscles that attach to my spine. “This triggers the pain gate theory,” she explains, which essentially means that my brain tries to counteract the pain she’s inflicting on my tissue by relaxing the right muscles. “I also mobilise your joints and release any trapped air from them to make sure everything is in the right place, which improves your synovial fluid flow, essentially lubricating the joints,” she tells me.
That brings me on to the clicking. There aren’t many people in the world I’d trust to click my neck, but it turns out Anisha was one of them. With a flick of the wrist she clicked my neck, and with a gentle lean, my spine was cracked too. She seemed to know exactly where my body was holding tension and air with the slightest touch, which I think is nothing short of miraculous.
Walking out of Anisha’s clinic, I felt different. Simply putting one foot in front of the other felt easier – though I’d never noticed how hard it had been for me to pull my right leg forward until my pelvis was suddenly aligned, my hips looser, and my leg suddenly weightless.
The next morning was less walking-on-air vibes. My shoulders felt sore and stiff, as though I’d done an intense workout – but this was to be expected, Anisha assured me. The 24-hour aches are expected because the muscles can often be inflamed from the treatment, but this actually helps to stimulate blood flow to the areas and encourage healing. It subsided within a few days, and my back and shoulders felt looser than before.
When should you see an osteopath?
Given how much there appeared to be wrong with me, I thought I was going to have to be in this treatment thing for the long haul. I was kind of right. Although Anisha said she could correct the damage in just three 40-ish minute sessions, the point of an osteopath isn’t just to go when you are already in pain. Rather, it’s best to use an osteopath as maintenance – seeing them a few times a year to stop your spine from misaligning in the first place.
“I’m a massive believer in prevention being better than cure, regardless of your age. If you want to be active then you need to get your body checked so that you can do the things you love to do,” Anisha says.
“Back pain has become much more normal, particularly in young people, as there’s more of a culture focusing on staying active. That’s amazing – but people think they’re invincible and ignore the warning signs that their body needs to be looked after,” she adds.
Does this mean that I was mistaken, and my workouts were actually just another thing I wasn’t getting right? “Exercise usually helps your muscles and joints – especially strength training. But when you have something such as a scoliosis or you are predisposed to injury, it can mean that you’re not weight bearing correctly through your spine and the muscles are more likely to scream out to you for treatment,” Anisha says.
“Imagining your body is a car, remember that you can fill it up with petrol, take it to be washed and check the water levels all you like, but sometimes it needs to go and see a mechanic. That’s what I do – it’s like an MOT for your body.”
It’s safe to say that Anisha has improved my back pain, but she’s also made me so much more aware of why my back pain mattered. I’m more conscious of my posture, taking my chest stretches more seriously, and patting myself on the back for completing workouts that genuinely have been helping (phew). But I’ll also never overlook the importance of getting actual help, rather than carrying on in pain – an important lesson for all of us after the past year.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).