I wrote a feature on Scoliosis for the Spectator Health pages.
Saturday 24th June is Scoliosis Awareness Day UK. For some scoliosis sufferers, this is a pretty accurate description of most days. In fact, it’s often hard to think about anything else.
I first became aware of a pain in my back around four years ago. I had been unwell for almost a year after losing a lot of weight unexpectedly, and in a very short space of time, and I reasoned that my spine was merely struggling to adjust to my new frame.
It was a strange sort of pain. Not a dull ache, but a raw and lively pang that lasted for days and days. If you think of the spine as a railway track running harmoniously in a straight line, each vertebra in perfect parallel to the next, mine felt like someone had cack-handedly rearranged the sleepers and then attempted to make good by slotting in a couple of extra ones at awkward angles. In all, it was upsetting the general sense of calm in my back, creating a nasty sensation of bones grinding together. It was a twisting-and-turning, bone-on-bone, pestle-and-mortar sort of feeling.
I told myself it would go away. The pain would vary from week to week, fluctuating from little more than an annoying distraction to moments where I had to focus on stifling high yelps because of the terrible tension in my spine.
It was only when I was writhing around the living room after a bad few months of pain, crawling on the carpet, climbing onto the sofa and reclining along its arm in a desperate attempt to train my spine to follow its straight and rigid line, that I decided I needed to go to the doctor. My GP sent me for an X-Ray and I was told I had scoliosis.
I didn’t know anything at all about the condition at that point. ‘Wasn’t Richard III rumoured to have had it?’, I remember asking myself, as I stroked my slightly sloping right shoulder. I looked to the Scoliosis Association UK for information. Scoliosis means that the spine curves to the side, in a ‘C’ or an ‘S’ shape, and the spine can twist at the same time. Symptoms vary significantly from person to person, so treatment depends entirely on the individual. Complementary therapies, such as massage from a physiotherapist or hydrotherapy, can be very helpful, either in conjunction with painkillers and other medication, or as a stand-alone treatment.
Like most people with scoliosis, I find that sitting or standing still for long periods of time is extremely painful for my back. So it was no surprise to learn that exercise such as yoga, walking or swimming is great for helping back pain by strengthening your core.
Pilates has been particularly beneficial for me, crucially under the instruction of a qualified teacher who understands scoliosis. The night after my first session I got into bed and immediately found a comfortable sleeping position for the first time in years. I didn’t realise how much of a problem this had been until suddenly it felt significantly better.
Scoliosis or not, there are steps we can all take to ensure good back health. The British Chiropractic Association recommends we avoid being stationary at our desks for more than half an hour or forty minutes at a time, and ensure we have good posture while working, with feet flat on the floor and elbows level with the desk.
Obviously I’m not going to claim that all it takes is the right kind of stretch in a pilates class to settle the discomfort of scoliosis. Even as I type, I feel like my back has inadvertently swallowed something whole, a golf ball or an actual golf club, I can’t quite decide. Either way, the discomfort serves as a reminder that I’ve been sitting at this computer for too long and need to stand up and walk around for a bit.