The first “back pain” story I’d like to share with you is my own personal story. I write about other people’s stories further down the page.
My back issues may have begun at birth, but I choose to start my story in the period between the fourth and fifth grade.
Those were tense days in Jerusalem and everybody was busy preparing for what is now known as the Six Day War. Even children were enrolled in the efforts and our mission was to fill up sacks with sand and place them as shields in entryways.
It was hard labor. We started in our own apartment building, which had two entryways. After getting both entryways reinforced with sand bags we moved on to other apartment blocks in our neighborhood. Each of these apartment blocks had three entryways.
I finished these days with a strained back, and it was the first time I can recall suffering from a strained back. I was a strong kid, and I felt shameful of my back pain. That’s probably why I continued working hard at filling sand bags – it was important to me that no one sees me as weak. I could barely move after two days of hard labor.
The war ended, but for me that was a beginning of a period of backaches. I strained my back again in less than a week. It’s difficult to determine in retrospect whether those pains were a result of strenuous training (I was a good athlete at the time), or a result of the stresses resulting from not knowing how to work my body properly.
In the 10th grade, in the middle of a spectacular long jump (I was able to jump around 6 meters back then), I heard a loud pop in my back and I knew right away that something was wrong. An X-Ray showed that one of my vertebrae (L2) was pushed forward (it happened at the apex of the arching in the middle of the long jump, just before the folding in preparation for the landing).
My physical education teacher saw the X-Ray and said that it looked like an X-Ray of an old man’s back; he couldn’t believe that it was mine. I can see why he thought so. I participated in many track and field competitions and my teacher couldn’t let me skip any of them.
Luckily, I decided to quit track and field, but my body took other measures in order to reduce stress and protect itself. It didn’t take long before I was rushed to the hospital with severe pain. For two whole days the doctors were baffled, but in the nick of time they realized I was having a severe case of appendicitis. It was a miracle that I reached the operating table before the appendix burst. It was clear at that point that I won’t be going back to track and field.
So my lower back was messed up. It always was messed up and never really knew how to not be messed up, and this was the case for other areas of my body as well.
I was a rather good athlete before the appendicitis. Before I was in track and field I was into gymnastics and all the training had built up my muscles. This caused issues for me – I felt uncomfortable whenever I stood tall because it felt as if I was accentuating my chest. The opposite – being hunched over with drooped shoulders didn’t feel right either. So I was hurting, and I couldn’t find the right way to hold myself up. Neither pushing my chest forward, nor arching my back forward felt right.
This is the shape I was in when I joined the army, which created interesting challenges. My body became resilient from carrying heavy bags and a machine gun. I became so strong that it practically eliminated my lower back sensitivity. This strength, however, didn’t include the know-how of where different parts of my body need to be.
My back pain returned after I finished my service and became a farmer in Yodfat, and I knew I had to find a solution – I just didn’t have a clue what is that solution and where to look for it.
The toughest thing for me was standing up for a long period of time. My days at the metal workshop were the roughest despite the fact that I enjoyed the work – making tools, welding. My pain would return after every time I worked at the metal workshop. The pain would start down at the calves and work its way up to the lower back pretty quickly.
I first heard about the Alexander Method in Yodfat. I studied the method and studied it thoroughly. I studied the Alexander Method with three different teachers during that period. Later on, right after I got married, in the time that my wife was completing her Alexander Method teacher training in London, I was studying with the greatest teacher of the method – Patrick Macdonald.
The Alexander Method worked wonders on my lower back but my calves still bothered me. This pain was causing me serious issues during my first years in Tel Aviv, after our return from London (my wife as a certified Alexander Method teacher and me a Paula Method teacher and a holistic masseuse). It’s hard to fathom today, but I couldn’t go through two client sessions in a row during those days. If I did, the pain in my calves would get worse and my lower back pain would come back and I wouldn’t be able to treat any more clients that day. I would be out of commission.
What finally made the difference and made things better for me was Rolfing. I started studying holistic massage techniques six years after having started with massage therapy, and I was lucky enough to be a student in the first course in Israel on structural integration based on Ida Rolf’s method. My teacher was Ed Mofin. My training took a year and a half (the course was comprised of condensed workshops that took place every few months), and my life has changed – my calves pain went away. I can’t say that the pain was gone without a trace because if I put pressure on my calves I can conjure up the pain, but I don’t feel any pain if I don’t do that.
Another dramatic change was with my lower back. I finally discovered how to be with my back and feel good about it. Nowadays, only a really unwise effort on my behalf might bring back the problem, but even if that happens, it will be for a short while because I now have the tool to bring myself right back into shape.
So what is so special about Rolfing? The pain in my claves probably stemmed from my legs’ “O” shape. That “O” shape was worse before I started Rolfing, and I didn’t know what was the right way to step on my feet.
The incredible thing that Rolfing can do is elongate muscles on the inside of the leg and, therefore, reduce their pull on the bone – a pull that bends the bone and creates an arch in the inside of the leg.
In addition, Rolfing has taught me how to identify my leg’s center, to put my weight on the ground with the center of the foot and not the outside of the foot, and identify the front part of the heel as the center point of the foot.
Rolfing worked to elongate the inside muscles of the calf and thigh, as well as the rear muscles. It also taught me proper movement – movement that uses all of the muscles in an optimal way. For example, in proper movement you pull your toes towards the knees (upwards). This not only shortens the front muscles, but also elongates the rear muscles – the cooperation between the agonist and the antagonist (the muscle that is contracting and the muscle that is relaxing) enables movement with less effort and less stress on the joint.
All of the above and more worked to reduce the stress on my heels and on the rear thigh muscles, and as a result improved the support my legs provided for my back. My back muscles didn’t need to engage too early, become fatigued, and create cramps and pain.
In the last 20 years I can be more active with my body and back without ending up in an acute back strain, than I was in the 30 years prior.
Joseph arrived at my clinic when I was just getting started. He came in with his wife and they told me that they both took up swimming lessons so that they can stay in shape in their golden years.
The problem was that Joseph’s neck slowly got more and more rigid to a point in which he couldn’t go swimming anymore. They wanted me to help him loosen up his neck so he can get back to swimming. During the treatment, Joseph told me that when he was four years old he drowned in the sea – he obviously survived but only after he fought the currents for his life.
This story made it clear – since that incident, Joseph never returned to the sea or a pool. The trauma he experienced kept him away from swimming. Being back at the pool to learn how to swim brought back feelings of that struggle for his life in the sea’s water, specifically in how his body reacted. Even at my clinic Joseph seemed like he was doing the front crawl in an attempt to swim for his life. This posture created a terrible tension in the neck and shoulders, which caused his neck issues.
It became clear to both of us that what we really need to do is release Joseph from the hold of his trauma and not the hold of his muscles. This trauma takes hold of his body and makes him fight for his life – even when he’s not in water.
Identifying the emotional-mental issue was the cornerstone for Josephs renewed sense of confidence.
On the treatment table, he first learned to identify support – of the table and later my support when I held parts of his body (legs, head, neck…)
The more Joseph learned to identify the physical support that’s available, the more he was able to relax the excessive strain on his muscles and let go.
From that point onwards we were able to include in the therapy the opening of muscle shortenings that he created by chronically tightening those muscles (as an expression of his anxiety). His muscles opened up and his posture didn’t resemble that of a front crawl anymore.
The return to the pool came soon afterwards, and then Joseph learned that the water offers its support as well, his body became friendly with the sensation of being enveloped by water, and he didn’t let the panic take over again.
I didn’t supervise the swimming lessons, but I presume that Joseph and his wife learned how to swim in no time.
Motke came to me complaining about his strained neck. When I started treating him I wasn’t sure if I was seeing right – his chest was pumped up and I wasn’t able to tell if he was doing this on purpose or if that was normal. Before I could work on the neck I had to attend to the chest because that’s where the holding of the neck originated. There’s just no chance I can release his neck without releasing the chest.
One of the best tools for releasing the chest is vibrations that demonstrate the available flexibility in the chest, along with paying attention to the support of the table that transfers the support of the ground to the body.
Motke didn’t quite get what I was talking about – he said his chest was like this for as long as he could remember. I asked him when was it that his neck started to cause problems and he replied that it started when he flew with a foreign airline and the plane had to make and emergency stop in Iraq due to a technical malfunction (this was days before the first gulf war).
This landing made him nervous not only because he is an Israeli citizen, but also because at some point in his past he was caught in Iraq and was sentenced for death by hanging! He was rescued in the nick of time by special forces that took him across the border.
When his plane landed in Iraq, this nightmare flooded his consciousness, and he was in actual danger. The staff promised him that he won’t be forced to disembark the plane and that no Iraqi officials will be allowed on the plane. He was saved once again.
His neck has been causing him problems ever since, so he came to see me.
So the fact that his chest is in constant state of deep inhalation for the past 30 years doesn’t bother him. He must have been in this state ever since he escaped hanging. It’s easy to imagine how the fear of strangulation creates this everlasting inhalation – this attempt to suck in the air. A part of him never let go of that fear. It is constantly manifested in his raised ribs.
Motke got used to this posture 30 years ago, and realizing the connection between the strained neck and the chest was critical for the relative releasing of the neck (I’m calling it ‘relative’ because he wasn’t able to fully let go. After a few sessions we were able to get to a point where he is holding his neck tightly, but it’s not strained anymore).
This is the quintessential example of the connection between body and mind. Motke is not the type to get deep into the core of his being. He’s the type for working on things externally and not internally, so he didn’t take our session to the full extent, but the relaxation he achieved was thanks to the connection he made with past traumas.