Joanna Helcke Video

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FIGHT BACK

Without quite realising it, I’ve been working my way towards the writing of this piece for precisely one whole year. It was a year ago today that a disc in my lower back herniated.

I remember the very moment it happened.

I’d already been in considerable pain for a few months – a sort of inexorable downward descent into the abyss that is severe pain.

I knew the path I was following.

I knew it well from two years earlier when I had experienced my first disc herniation.

On that previous occasion, I really had no idea what was happening to me. All I understood was that a perfectly innocuous niggle had imperceptibly morphed into prolonged pain on an altogether new and barely tolerable level. In fact, I distinctly remember thinking “This pain is only one small notch below childbirth, except it goes on and on and there’s no bouncing baby to show for it at the end!” And so it was that early last year, I knew exactly what was awaiting me, and yet nothing – and I really mean NOTHING – seemed to halt my progress down that slippery slope.

So coming back to THAT moment:

It happened in the car as I was driving home - only a five minute drive. Yet in those 5 minutes I suddenly found myself apparently trapped in an instrument of torture. I needed to escape - the searing pain down my leg was so bad – but I couldn’t.

There was a roundabout.

Then another one.

And then a third one after that.

I made it home and somehow extracted myself from this most cruel of torture chambers.

The following morning I could no longer walk.

Nor stand.

Nor sit.

Nor drive.

Nor raise my head even a fraction from my pillow.

There is precious little help on offer for those with severe and prolonged back pain. The NHS is so terribly underfunded that if back trouble isn’t considered life-threatening (for this read “loss of bladder and bowel continence”) then you are left alone in the dubious company of ever-stronger, mind-warping, addictive pain relief drugs (that don’t seem to take much of the pain away).

It is, frankly, the equivalent of leaving a vulnerable child in the outwardly kindly company of a dodgy adult with ulterior motives.

Relentless, inescapable agony leaves you prey to addiction (and, potentially, to unscrupulous individuals) because there’s only so much pain a person can take over a long period of time.

And that brings me to an aside on pain:

I have the utmost respect for those who live with long term pain. Those around us who live in the company of perpetual pain deserve our unreserved admiration. High level pain permeates everything: every moment, every action, every inaction, every thought. It is inescapable, merciless. And that can be soul-destroying, crushing for even the born optimists of this world.

So much of the advice (official or otherwise) on offer has, in my view, been written from the comfortable position of someone who has read the research papers but never actually experienced the reality of weeks, months or years of physical suffering.

Yes, most back pain – even severe – is not life-threatening per se.

Yes, most back pain will resolve itself without medical intervention.

Yes, research does indeed show that exercise is a key means of preventing, minimising and relieving back pain.

Yes, pain is an entirely personal and internal journey that an individual is undergoing.

But hang on a minute, what about the psychological impact of constant agony? It can make you feel that life isn’t worth living, and that’s life threatening, isn’t it?

And hang on a minute, have they considered the effect of telling people who can neither walk nor stand that what they really need to be doing is lots of exercise? Might that not have an adverse effect? Might that not make people angry and bitter?

And hang on a minute, have they reflected on how telling people that “pain is in their head” might be interpreted? Might that not come across as belittling and minimising the pain, however well-intentioned? 

It is clear to me that advice on severe back pain management needs to be reframed if it is to have a positive impact and a desirable outcome.

That was a rather lengthy aside on pain and I want to take you back to the day after my torturous car journey that ended in my disc herniating (L5/S1 if you’re that way inclined!).

Despite being unable to move, I was hopeful: I had 10 days before my exercise classes were due to start up again, a month before I was expected to stand on stage at the NEC to speak at The Baby Show and 5 weeks before I had an engagement to speak on stage – again at the NEC – for Body Power.

I could do it! I could heal in time.

The days and weeks went by and, despite the enforced bed-rest, I still couldn’t stand upright for more than a minute or two at a time. It eventually became clear that I was going to have to abandon all these engagements. 2017 was due to be a BIG year for me on the career front but pain had gotten the better of me.

I withdrew into an internal struggle to overcome and to heal. It was all-consuming: quite literally my one and only focus in life. There were days when I felt sure that with this degree of pain I should be in hospital cocooned in a morphine-induced haze.

Instead I set about rehabbing myself – I use that word retrospectively because at the time it was simply a daily strategy to get through the pain. There was no magic to it, just a daily mix of reading up on the condition whilst flat on my back, being part of a worldwide Facebook support group for people with disc herniations and – most importantly of all – daily deep water aquajogging.

I couldn’t stand, sit or walk but I could aquajog (aquawalk is probably more accurate). This humble and, frankly, boring form of exercise was my mental and physical salvation, enabling me to move freely, with an almost normal gait (unlike my land-based hobble). For an hour every day I almost felt like me. It was worth every truly torturous minute in the changing room, all dignity abandoned as I attempted to get pants, socks and shoes on and off. And it was worth every penny spent (and there were a lot spent) on daily taxi fees to and from the pool. How lucky was I to actually have the financial means to do that? What about those who simply cannot afford to go to a swimming pool, let alone pay for a taxi every day?

Yes, pain is indiscriminate. But let’s face it, the ability to effectively manage it is largely decided by money - or lack of it. It’s important to say that, not least because severe long term pain can be the underlying cause of poverty itself. How wasteful of society not to wholeheartedly invest in physical and mental wellbeing. What a loss.

So back to the year-long, rehab journey of mine which, in summary, looks something like this: aquajogging, bed-rest, information-gathering, a panoply of supplements and the healing power of time led to a little-enjoyed period of spin classes (oh, how I loathe spin!) which eventually took me to a gradual return to modified weight training 6 months on from the herniation. Since November 2017 I have been rebuilding my body, brick by brick, a carefully constructed tower of fitness based on deep, stable foundations designed to withstand the earthquakes of life.

The photos taken today, on the first anniversary of my second disc herniation are part of the healing process, the mental healing process that I need to show myself that, yes, I can mend; yes, I can be strong; yes, I can overcome and, yes, I will always do my absolute utmost to get up and conquer.  

So as I look back over the last 12 months and reflect, a great deal of the old Jo has changed and there are lessons that I have learned:

My deep faith in humanity – a product of my innate optimism – has been strengthened by the sheer kindness of so many people around me who helped me through the bad times. It touched me and I am forever grateful. You know who you are.

There is something about this year-long journey that has deeply affected my perspective on life and seen from the exterior it might look as though I have lost my mojo. I used to blog every week, I was on a mission to achieve great things in my career, I was always writing for this or that magazine, entering product awards. In short I was the most unrelaxed person ever! And now? Well, you know what, life is for living and if that means not writing a blog in favour of having lunch out with a friend, then so be it.

As for my work I decided that life is too short to do stuff I dislike. I took a good look at what I love about my job and decided it was time to simply focus on that and that is probably you, dear friend, reading this blog. What I love is people. I love working with people. I love seeing the smiles on people’s faces in my classes. I love seeing the connections and friendships that grow. I love it when years later someone messages me and says “You know what Jo? Your BuggyBabies classes planted the seed of fitness in my life. They are the very root of my Ironmans and Ultra-marathons”. I love to bump into mamas who tell me that 8 years on they still meet up regularly with friends they got to know through my classes. I love to sense the sheer satisfaction felt by mums when they see their strength and fitness grow through my classes. I love to see people using my recipes to give their families healthy treats. I love creating and sharing chocolate recipes. I love the beautifully supportive, friendly and kind community I can see growing through my online fitness programme. I love receiving an email – like I did earlier this week – telling me that "My back has stopped hurting after our session! You are magic!!!!!"

Before I sign-off, I’d like to say that this piece and these photos of me a year on – though cathartic for me – are dedicated to all those who live with long term pain: those of you across the world in the closed facebook support group, and those of you with whom I am connected and who I know live with pain.

You are all my heroes.

This is a core that has worked hard to fight back 

This is a back that has fought back

Got to work posture to fight back

I am happy because I fight back

 

Footnotes

  1. An estimated 8.9 million working days were lost due to work related musculoskeletal disorders in 2016/17, an average of 17.6 days lost for each case. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders account for 35% of all working days lost in the UK.
  2. "Back pain behind 'more disability than any other condition'," ITV News reports after a new study found that the condition may now be the leading cause of disability worldwide. The study looked at how much disability is caused by lower back pain globally. It found that lower back pain caused more disability than any other condition, affecting nearly 1 in 10 people. www.nhs.uk
     
  3. As part of managing the acute symptoms of the disc herniation I used a Disc Dr. Traction Belt.
     
  4. As ongoing management of disc problems and to help proof against future episodes I aim to consistently eat an anti-inflammatory diet, I take glucosamine sulphate, fish oil capsules and turmeric, I don’t drink alcohol, I see a wonderful physiotherapist every 5-6 weeks and I train regularly with weights in a small-group training environment where supervision by my coach is really good and exercises are adapted for me. I work a great deal on strengthening postural muscles.
     
  5. In daily life, I don’t sit at my desk for long periods of time, I use a “back friend” on my office chair and rotate between different forms of seating. I use a wedge-shaped cushion when driving and take regular breaks on longer drives. I choose not to sit on soft saggy sofas at all. I listen carefully to my body: when I get nerve-related symptoms (coldness in my foot, numbness or a niggle in my glutes and going down my leg) I immediately back off and adjust whatever I think I might be doing which is causing the irritation.
     
  6. I am working on building an internal “library” of positive experiences relating to my disc herniation as a means of protecting myself against future pain. For example, I consciously take note of the fact that my body has healed twice without intervention and early this year I started to feel the beginning of another problem but I managed to halt the progress. This has been clocked and means that I DO have the capacity to stop things from spiralling downwards: disc herniation is not an inevitable outcome etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

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