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How I beat a life of painkillers

MagazineJune 2013 (Vol. 24 Issue 3)How I beat a life of painkillers

When Kathy Glenn damaged her back, her doctor said she would need painkillers for the rest of her life and never work again

When Kathy Glenn damaged her back, her doctor said she would need painkillers for the rest of her life and never work again. But a simple therapy changed all that

Occupational therapist Kathy Glenn was told her career was effectively over and she would be on painkillers for the rest of her life after a heavy patient stumbled and fell on top of her. That gloomy prognosis proved true for the colleague who was with Kathy at the time, and for several years it looked as though that would be Kathy's fate too. Her sacroiliac joint (where the spine meets the pelvis, and which gives us flexibility and allows us to twist and turn as we walk) had been damaged and she was in constant pain. Sitting or standing for more than an hour was impossible and her sleep was interrupted every night.

She was off work for the first few months after the accident and was able to return only for half-day stints after that. Worse, she became an 'ibuprofen junkie'-the painkillers were always close to hand whether she went out for a walk or was watching television.

"I always had to have them, and I made sure they were with me. Even when I changed handbags, they were the first things I looked for to make sure they were there. The drugs did help, but I was never pain-free," she said. The painkillers were also giving her mouth ulcers and making her constipated.

It was all panning out as her doctor had predicted. He said she would need to take painkillers for the rest of her life and he also thought she would never be able to work properly again. In fact, he was prepared to sign her off 'for life' there and then.

The doctor also doubted whether osteopathy or physiotherapy would help and even refused to prescribe free physiotherapy sessions on the National Health Service.

Eventually he agreed, but then Kathy wished he hadn't.

"I felt as though I was on a conveyor belt. I wasn't given a full physical assessment. I was given ultrasound and that didn't seem to do anything. Lying down in my underwear in front of a male physiotherapist with only a flimsy curtain separating me from another patient, I felt exposed and vulnerable. That all increased my tension, which didn't help the treatment I was receiving." She also paid for private osteopathy sessions that she said helped a little.

Two years on from the accident, she wasn't making any real progress and she was still using the painkillers. But it was around that time that a friend mentioned that an 'Introduction to the Alexander Technique' (AT) course was soon to begin at the local adult education centre near her East London home.

"I'd vaguely heard of the Alexander Technique and I was curious to find out more because it seemed to be a different approach from everything else I'd tried," says Kathy. AT teaches the body to 'remember' proper posture and breathing, including the correct use of the spine, which can be lost through stress, pain and bad habits.

The course was being given by Stephanie Smith, a leading AT teacher who remembers Kathy being at each of the five evening sessions. Kathy says her body immediately 'got' one of the classic Alexander exercises, the semi-supine position, and she decided to follow-up with some private sessions with Stephanie.

The Alexander Technique

What's it all about?

The Alexander Technique was developed by Shakespearean actor Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1890s, who wanted to overcome his breathing problems and hoarseness when speaking in public.

Looking at himself in the mirror, he realized he was contracting his body, and his head went backwards and downwards just before he began speaking. When he consciously corrected this habit, he was able to speak naturally.

At the heart of the technique is 'constructive conscious control', where the student becomes aware of the bad habits causing poor posture and breathing. The body corrects itself through conscious awareness, which also releases taut and tense muscle groups.

Depending on the severity of the problem, AT teachers recommend around 10 45-minute sessions to allow the body to 'remember' proper posture and breathing.

Fees vary from teacher to teacher. Stephanie charges lb35 per session, for example, so expect to pay at least lb350 to correct bad habits.

Any proof?

The Alexander Technique has been put to the test in quite a few studies over the years, usually as a treatment for back pain. In one study it was the best treatment when it was trialled alongside exercise and massage for people with chronic back pain. The technique can also improve coordination and posture in people with chronic back pain.

What's more, it was better than massage and standard conventional care for Parkinson's disease sufferers. Those who received 24 Alexander lessons reported improvement in symptoms and also felt less depressed.

It can even help older people stay steady on their feet. In one study of women aged 65 years and older, it helped improve balance.

Celeb status

The Alexander Technique gets a big thumbs up from celebs (perhaps not so surprising for something created by an actor). Fellow thespians who have benefited include Judy Dench, Lenny Henry, Hugh Jackman, Daniel Radcliffe, Hilary Swank, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Jeremy Irons, John Cleese, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Jamie Lee Curtis, Paul Newman and Robin Williams.

Musicians and pop stars who have been 'Alexandered' include Paul McCartney, Madonna, Victoria Beckham and Sting.

At her first 'lesson', as AT practitioners like to call the sessions, Kathy said her main concern was the constant pain and her psychological dependence on painkillers. Stephanie takes up the story: "When I put my hands on Kathy, I found that her neck was twisted and she was pulled down into her right side. I also found that her feet were not in a good supporting contact with the floor, and that she had a tendency to shorten her breathing cycle and not allow a complete exhalation of breath so that the in-breath exceeded the out-breath."

The key was to make the body conscious of its bad habits; Kathy was encouraged to experience what proper posture felt like and to use her thoughts to help correct her bad habits and 'release' tension and contractions. During the session, Stephanie realized that Kathy had a problem with coordination and had mild dyspraxia, where the ability to think, plan and carry out sensory and motor tasks is compromised.

Dyspraxic or not, the first lesson was a revelation. For the first time in two years, Kathy was not in any pain. After the session, Kathy's friends said she looked and felt different, and she didn't automatically reach for the ibuprofen. "I wasn't sure if it was just me thinking I was better, so I needed an objective measure of any improvement," says Kathy.

To find out, she sat in a chair for two hours-something she had been unable to do since the accident.

Kathy booked in for five sessions and, after a short break, for seven more. Stephanie reckons she can sort out most postural problems in 10 sessions. Even though the improvement was there from the first few lessons, Kathy has continued to visit Stephanie every six weeks or so for her 'maintenance' sessions, as she calls them-14 years on from her first lesson. Stephanie thinks the maintenance visits are a symptom of the dyspraxia, as Kathy's body keeps 'forgetting' good posture.

For Kathy, each visit is worth it, and AT has given her other benefits too. "My work as an occupational therapist in the National Health Service is demanding and stressful, and I've used AT techniques to stay calm. If it's going to be a difficult meeting, I centre myself first, have an open posture and take deep breaths, so I'm not tense and can handle the meeting better."

She still marvels at the little revelations that her AT sessions bring. "Sometimes Stephanie says that my spine is unrolling and that I've got a little taller. When I get back in my car afterwards, I realize I actually have because I always have to adjust the rear-view mirror!"

Stephanie's story

Stephanie Smith, Kathy's teacher, has been a qualified practitioner for 19 years. Her journey to the Alexander Technique wasn't that different from Kathy's; she suffered from bad back pain on damaging her sacroiliac joint after lifting some heavy objects, and had been seeing a physiotherapist and osteopath twice a week with only limited success.

"Looking back now I had a really bad slouch, yet nobody mentioned that to me when I walked into the clinic each time," she said. Most of her friends seemed to know about the Alexander Technique-even if she didn't-and they urged her to see a teacher. At her very first session 26 years ago, the teacher straightened her, showed her how to 'release' muscle groups and how the head should rest relaxed at the top of the spine.

As with Kathy, the response was immediate and Stephanie suddenly felt no pain. "I was fascinated. How could this person get such an amazing effect just by lightly touching my body?"

Stephanie was so fascinated that she decided to become an AT teacher too. After three years' training, which included mentoring by a doctor of biomechanics at Surrey University, she graduated and has since qualified as a teacher of AT through the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique.

Try this in the office

Most of us spend too many hours working at a keyboard every day. So here are a few Alexander tips to help you maintain decent posture.

1- Sit facing your desk squarely, not at an angle. Do not twist to face your keyboard or computer screen.

2- Make sure your chair is at a good height and that your feet are supported by a footrest.

3- It's best if your chair is angled slightly downwards so that your legs are at an angle that is slightly greater than 90 degrees at the hip joint.

4- Make sure your desk and keyboard are at the right height so you're not straining your neck to look at the screen and your forearms are at a right (90-degree) angle to the keyboard.

Top tip

The semi-supine position is the great Alexander tip you can try at home right now-and you should start feeling the benefits immediately.

-Lie flat on your back on the floor or on a firm surface, then bend your knees while keeping your feet flat on the floor. Put a few books under your head for support.

- Now just feel the muscles 'release' as you lie there for 15 minutes. Do this every day and you will start to feel rejuvenated and refreshed.


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