By Luke Gregorczyk (my journey with back pain, Rolfing and Mindfulness)
Chronic back pain is said to be a leading cause of physical disability in the world. It is shocking to find out that on average 1 out of 10 people suffer from chronic back pain and that nearly 3.5 million working days were lost last year due to this condition. Current medical approach to back pain has surprisingly very few effective treatment options and in my experience it’s often the alternative approaches that work best. This is my personal story of dealing with debilitating back pain and recovering via an alternative route of Mindfulness and Rolfing—I hope it inspires you!
Thinking back to my late twenties, I remember being in great physical shape, with an abundance of confidence and perhaps a dash of arrogance! I had a good diet, exercised nearly every day, belonged to a wrestling club—in short I’d never known serious medical pain, aside from the odd hangover!
Then one day in March 2013 everything changed forever. I was at a party dancing with Sarah, my then girlfriend and now wife. We were really going for it: lifts, swinging, twists, you name it! Then just as I was lowering her to the ground, something in my lower spine went “pop” and I crumpled to the ground in agony. The pain was so bad that I could only compare it to being stabbed with red-hot iron bars. I tried to stand up, but my right leg would give way and go completely numb. I could not feel any sensation in my right foot and bearing any weight on this side would send an enormous surge of pain up my leg, pelvis and back. With Sarah’s help, and some paracetamol, I went to bed. However, the pain didn’t ease off and I began to worry that there may be some serious neurological damage. Because we were in Brussels at the time, I had to drive us back to London the next day! Even though I’d taken 2000mg of ibuprofen and paracetamol any attempt to stand on my right leg would send wave of piercing, burning pain up my pelvis and lower back. Naturally, I saw my GP as quickly as possible. He didn’t even look at my back but prescribed benzodiazepine, a muscle relaxant also known as valium. I didn’t like the idea of being drugged up and after two days of medication I decided to seek an alternative.
Meanwhile my mental state was deteriorating. The idea that my body was infallible quickly crumbled and gave way to a much darker and truer reality. I began to see, what Buddhists call the first noble truth; there exists suffering! My identity as a strong man, capable of handling any situation began to disappear. For months I woke up each morning with a feeling of pain and ensuing despair. At first, I tried to deny I was in pain and carried on with my routines as usual, exercising at the gym and working around the discomfort. I finally cracked after a debilitating spasm whilst walking to work saw me overtaken by an octogenarian! I was angry and cynical about life—it all felt so unfair! My relationships suffered. Despite trying various therapies (massage, osteopathy etc…), they only brought some short-term relief before the debilitating pain was back again.
Then one day I picked up a book with a promising title by John Kabat-Zinn called Full Catastrophe Living. For the first time I found something that did not promise quick relief, but advocated opening up to the discomfort through Mindfulness meditation without being fixated on results. Even though there is good scientific evidence that Mindfulness helps with chronic back pain, I kept my expectations low. As I was reading through the wisdom of this book I also started my daily 40 mins meditation sessions. Although it was hard at first—my mind wandered from feeling angry, doubtful and cynical to bored and drowsy—my intuition told me this path was helping. As well as meditating, my research on back pain led me to a less well-known method called Rolfing® that puts huge emphasis on body awareness.
Then, 2 weeks later, on a late spring morning came a breakthrough! Having had 14 days of daily meditations and 3 Rolfing sessions so far my body was still in pain, yet I felt more in touch with it then ever before. As I was going through a body scan meditation I had an epiphany: I realised that it was not the pain that caused me the discomfort, but it was the anticipation of it. I suddenly became aware that the experience of pain in the “now” is containable. By staying in touch with my body and accepting my present experience, I was free to choose how to respond to this experience. I understood that the pain in my back was only in my back, which meant much of my body was absolutely fine.
I no longer felt controlled by the pain. The pain did not define me. It was only a fluid experience and as such was liable to change. The mixture of Mindfulness meditation and Rolfing allowed me to embrace my pain. I was able to move on from my unrealistic expectation of my physical invincibility and into the deeper truth that the Buddha taught: there is suffering, it has a cause and so can have an end. 5 years on, I am practically pain free, meditate every day and found my calling as a Rolfing therapist. Reflecting back, I feel grateful for what then seemed like a curse: this whole experience allowed me to connect with my body and change my outlook on pain.
Luke Gregorczyk is one of a handful of certified UK Rolfing® practitioners and at the time of this article, is the only one Hertfordshire. He also is an avid meditator and since 2003 a practising Buddhist. His interest in mindfulness and specific knowledge of human anatomy make his approach to body oriented therapy quite unique. In his work he insists that his clients improve their posture, coordination and perception as a fundamental components of well being. Due to his personal health challenges, he has particularly good results in resolving chronic pain & immobility issues especially in the lower back, neck and shoulders. You can get in touch with Luke via his website: https://rolfing.