Kipling famously said “Like drugs, words have the ability to change the way another person thinks and feels”.
At the Avenue Clinic, we try to be as positive as we can about how you can cope best with your back pain. However, we may from time to time, use words that you do not entirely understand and if you don’t ask us what we really mean by what we have said, you could go away and worry unnecessarily about what that really means for you.
How words can adversely affect recovery
I had a “back problem” years ago. I was off work for weeks. I had an MRI scan at the time. I was called back. They had ‘found something’. I was terrified. I went back for another scan. The report said that I had a ‘disc protrusions at several levels’ and the ‘protrusions were close to a nerve both left and right and at different levels’ and I had ‘degeneration’ and modic changes’ and a few other issues.
Instead of just being annoyed that I had back pain and couldn’t get work or even get around, suddenly, I felt fragile. I became very cautious about moving. I was frightened. Was I going to recover from all of this?
All I could focus on was those words on the MRI report. The words took over my rational thought processes and I felt SICK and frightened and worried that any wrong movement was going to cause catastrophe!
How the right words can help you recover!
It took ages for me to recover – and it wasn’t until a friend of mine made me talk about my fears and realised what I was feeling that I began to actually get over the injury. He told me that I might have all those odd things on MRI but none of those things was now causing my pain. I had recovered from the initial injury ages ago and I needed to get some strength back if I was going to move on. His words were positive and I trusted him and so I followed his treatment plan, which was?
Yes, it was EXERCISES that sorted me out. I started a regular exercise class to strengthen my core and the back muscles. I was pushed to do far more than I thought I was capable of. I had disc problems and lots of other things on MRI, after all!! But I did not allow those thoughts to enter my head, I listened to his positive encouragement and immediately, I started to feel more ‘normal’ and in control again.
That’s why I nag you all to exercise – that and of course because research shows it is the MOST effective way to control back pain. We must not be overwhelmed by the words, we must see them for what they are and what they really mean.
So, what might you have been told and what do the words really mean?
- You have spinal damage
Means that you have age related changes. We all get older. We all have ‘damage’. But it does not mean we should be in pain. Marathon runners in their 80’s certainly will have damage to most of their joints but they can run that distance pain free!
- You have torn a ligament or tendon
Which is really a sprain/strain. A few fibres have been used beyond their capabilities. They will recover. There are many footballers running around with torn ACL’s (ligaments in the knee that provide stability) in their knees but are pain free.
- You have a frozen shoulder
The shoulder has become tight and stiff. It might be painful for a time but you have not damaged it. It is a condition that arises spontaneously and we don’t know why. It does recover with treatment and time and exercise!
- You have osteoarthritis
“Osteo” means bone and “arthr” means joint” itis” is inflammation. What you really have is probably osteoarthrosis, which is wear and tear or those age related changes that we all have and which does not mean you will be in pain for ever as a result. It is not an inflammatory problem like rheumatoid arthritis, which is a disease.
Osteoarthrosis is normal and not necessarily painful. In fact a lot of people with knee arthritis can do a lot to help themselves such as losing weight and exercising. Some people will need and benefit from joint replacements but only if the pain is too much to put up with.
- You have muscle imbalances
If you have stiff muscles it is usually because they are trying to protect a weak joint and if you strengthen the other muscles around the joint concerned then the tight muscle can relax.
- You have scoliosis
Eugenie got married the other day and showed the scar from her scoliosis surgery. Idiopathic scoliosis is a problem affecting young people and is a progressive problem but a scoliosis that is not idiopathic just means a sideways curve in your spine. It does not mean you will have pain. Again the stronger the surrounding muscles the better.
- You have bad posture
Lots of people have what appears to be bad posture but that does not mean they will experience pain. If you stay in one position for a long time with any kind of posture, you will experience discomfort. We are made to move and we must do so to keep our bodies painfree.
- You have a chronic condition
This just means that you have a stubborn or persistent problem not the degree of pain that you have.
- You are catastrophising
Your nervous system is over rating the alarm that the area is sending to the brain. It has become sensitised, often due to the use of those inappropriate words! I was catastrophising after I had the MRI. I still have all of that degeneration etc etc that showed on the MRI all those years ago and probably more but I only get occasional niggles – and then only when I haven’t exercised for a few days!
If you are worried about words you have been told that worries you, do ask us what they really mean.
I hope that we, at the Avenue Clinic have never said things to you such as:-
“Your back is weak” or “You wear out as you get older” or “This will be with you for the rest of your life” and that you can now understand that this is just WRONG!
But we could well have said
“Avoid bending or lifting” or “Stop if you feel pain” or “Let pain guide you” or “You have disc degeneration” or a “Prolapse” or “You have arthritis” without wondering what you know about such things and any negative ideas about these things you may already have in your mind.
I hope that by now you can realise that being told that you have “arthritis” or “disc prolapse” or “wear and tear” can cause you to think that you have structural damage, but really you do not.
Talking about “weakness” can make you imagine that you will ALWAYS be weak but of course you can resolve weakness by exercise!
“You will always have this problem” may cause you to feel negative about the future. I will always have my dodgy discs and bones but I do not have pain.
“Let pain guide you” can cause you to think that because something hurts then you must have caused harm. Extreme pain is one thing but a niggle is just that and not necessarily due to harm having been done.
We are always here to answer your questions so please share any worries about what we or anyone else might have told you, with one of the chiropractors at the Clinic.