Seven years ago, personal trainer, keen climber and former professional football player David Roach was told he'd never exercise again.
"It was the worst moment of my life," said Londoner David, now 36. "I'd just qualified as a PT and exercise was a huge part of my life. It was such a blow."
The hopeless prognosis was the opinion of a physiotherapist David had been seeing on the NHS after being struck with debilitating back pain one day out of the blue.
"I just woke up one morning in agony. I couldn't bend down and put on my shoes or socks. I was like an old man."
David assumed the pain would wear off in a few days, but after a week of no improvement, he made an appointment to see his GP, who arranged for David to have a scan.
Soon David discovered the cause of his pain: a torn sacroiliac joint (responsible for transferring the weight of the upper body to the lower extremities), and two bulging discs in his lumbar spine that were pressing on nerves in the area.
The injuries were most likely caused by having played a lot of sports over the years, David was told, or even just by general wear and tear.
He was prescribed painkillers and physiotherapy, but neither had much of an impact. "I couldn't walk for more than 20 minutes at a time," said David, "and I couldn't bend over at all."
After several sessions, David's physiotherapist delivered the news that there was no hope. "She said to forget about exercise and get a desk job. I was very depressed."
Despite seeing a number of other physios, all of whom came to the same conclusion, David refused to accept a future of painkillers and no exercise, and decided to look into alternative therapies instead.
"I spent a year researching and trying different things . . . osteopathy, rolfing, acupuncture . . . I must have spent thousands."
Some of the therapies helped, but only in the short term. "The pain would always come back," said David. "It was very frustrating."
Then a friend of David's suggested he try a therapy called 'myofascial release'—a hands-on technique that works on the fascia, the protein-based fibrous tissue that envelopes every muscle, bone, organ, ligament, tendon, nerve and vein in the body.
She recommended a practitioner called Ron Huntley, who trained in America with leading myofascial release expert John F. Barnes. Although David had "pretty much given up hope by then", he made an appointment to see Ron at his North London practice.
The miracle worker
When David first met Ron at the Mackenzie Practice in Islington, he was surprised by Ron's confidence. "He told me he'd be able to fix me in six sessions. I was sceptical, but I thought it was worth a try."
David's initial session was supposed to be two hours long, but ended up lasting for four. "I was so out of alignment. I thought I was sitting and standing normally, but Ron said my spine was a Z shape."
The treatment, which involves focused manual pressure and stretching, was uncomfortable and quite painful at times, David said. But afterwards, he noticed a big change in his posture and movement.
"Ron took before and after photos of me and you can clearly see the difference [see page 71]. I could move more freely and had less pain too."
Over the next couple of months, David saw Ron for three more sessions, and carried out a set of simple home exercises daily that Ron had prescribed to improve his posture.
"He got me to paint a red dot on my watch so I'd remember to do my exercises every time I looked at it," David said.
After his fourth session, Ron told David "you're done", and explained that he didn't need any more treatment. "He said I was fixed and could exercise again. I couldn't believe it!"
David was apprehensive at first, but gradually started getting back into exercise. Instead of his usual intense gym training, he took up more gentle forms of exercise like Pilates and the Feldenkrais Method—both of which he says are fantastic for people with back problems. As his confidence grew, he tried more dynamic activities.
"It was then that I discovered climbing," David recalls, "which I now do four times a week at a local indoor climbing centre. It's great because you're using your whole body in a natural way. I feel stronger than I ever did before."
David also managed to get back into personal training and soon had a steady stream of clients. He now has his own successful business and trains up to seven people a day.
"I think it helps that I've been injured. I can offer my clients advice on how to prevent or overcome injuries and point them in the right direction. I see injuries as an education now."
Healthy eating is an important part of David's life too. He doesn't drink and follows a Paleo-style diet, avoiding grains, dairy, refined sugars and processed foods, while focusing instead on fresh fruit and veg, meat and fish, and nuts and seeds.
"I think good nutrition has really helped me heal and stay healthy and prevent other injuries," David said.
But it's Ron that David credits for giving him his life back. "I don't know where I'd be if it wasn't for him. I wouldn't be climbing, I wouldn't be a personal trainer . . . I'm so glad I didn't listen to those doctors and physios."
What is myofascial release?
Myofascial release is a holistic hands-on therapy that uses manual pressure and stretching to release physical restrictions in the body. Instead of manipulating muscles, myofascial release works on the fascia—the web of elastin and collagen fibres that surrounds and separates muscles and other internal organs—which can scar or harden as a result of trauma, inflammation and prolonged poor posture.
Myofascial release is designed to promote relaxation of tense tissues, leading to less pain and stiffness, and an improved range of motion. In fact, clinical studies have found the technique to be beneficial for patients with chronic lower-back, neck and heel pain.1
According to a review of 10 studies of myofascial release for orthopaedic conditions—defined as anything involving the muscles, ligaments and joints—the outcomes were mixed, but generally positive.2
Useful contacts and resources
Myofascial Release UK: www.myofascialrelease.co.uk; Duncur House, 1 Weavers Drive, Torrance, Glasgow G64 4AP; tel: 0333 006 4555
The Mackenzie Practice: www.mackenziepractice.com; 125 Mackenzie Road, Islington, London N7 8QS; tel: 0203 322 9884
John F. Barnes Myofascial Release: www.myofascialrelease.com;
tel: (US) 1 610 644 0136