The Invasion of Back Pain


Back and muskuloskeletal pain is a growing issue. One in ten visits to primary care physicians are for low back pain. Usually, some kind of pain pill is prescribed. Beth Israel in Boston looked at 23,910 visits to doctors for low back pain between 1999 and 2010 to find out if the treatments were effective. They were not. The prescription of opiods like Oxycontin rose from 19% to 29%. But they don't help. Other studies demonstrate that opiods are only marginally useful for acute back pain and "worthless" for chronic back pain.

So what does help? According Beth Israel, "maybe" some physical therapy and ibuprofren. That's it. That's what we've got for persistent back pain. Most doctors are at a loss for how to treat simple low back pain or the musculoskeletal issues it can stem from.

Because doctors don't know what to do and want to do something, they order expensive scans. This puts unnecessary strain on the system, but at least the patients feel cared for and their doctor appears attentive. You can see the cycle this describes. It will continue for a while because it takes seventeen years, on average, for new treatments to become commonplace. Seventeen years! In the meantime, people are suffering so much they're going on disability.

One-third of All People on Disability Have Back Pain

The Social Security Administration has a category of back and musculoskeletal pain. In 1961, this category was 8.3% of the total and the sixth largest, behind things like heart disease, neurological disorders, mental illness, and cancer. In 2011, back pain was the first and largest category at 33.8%.

Chronic Pain is Complex

This is why Feldenkrais practitioners often see people who are desperate and in need of help. I myself went down the medical route (read: rabbit hole) in the 1990s and got nowhere. Long-term pain is a jumble of multi-colored threads, a unique combination of self-use, lifestyle, mental and emotional states, injury, disease, accident, not to mention our idea of how efforting is linked to feeling "good" about ourselves. Throw in the learned dysfunction and variability of personal history and you've got a complex ball of wax that doctors can't penetrate.

Feldenkrais is the best thing I've found to unravel this jumble and bring balance to one's musculoskeletal patterns. Oddly, it's not about better movement so much as it utilizes movement as a vehicle to create a system that is so well-organized the original pain can't sustain itself. It changes how one creates a response to the world, rather like meditation utilizes the breath to calm the mind. Once you establish a vocabulary for self-awareness through your movement, you can apply this deeper awareness to the larger patterns of life, like the quality of your self-expression, spontaneity, and joy.

Given the time it took to develop the habits that contribute to chronic pain, it also takes time to unwind them. Why not try? It can't hurt.