For the past 4 ½ years I have struggled with my left hip; this resulted in pain, tightness and reduced mobility. Prior to this, ignoring some subtle and some not so subtle warning signs, I was an avid hiker – I was out on the trails communing with nature two or three times a week. And then one day towards the end of a hike, my hip and leg just seized up.
My doctor suggested taking a three month break in order to let it heal. I wish it had been that simple. By the end of three months, I couldn’t even go for a short walk without finding myself back in bed unable to move for days.
At this point a helpless “little girl” part somewhere deep inside had a tantrum. She wanted her mommy. She wanted to have her “boo-boo” kissed – she just wanted it to go away!
In desperation, I tried every mother-substitute I could find. I was prodded, poked and stretched. I was a good little girl and did what I was told. I tried heat; I tried cold. I experimented with all kinds of liniments, pills, potions and herbal remedies. But nothing delivered the cure I needed!
And so it went for years. Then this spring I fractured the sacroiliac joint in my other hip. Doctors could find no reason for this, but a “light bulb” turned on. I finally got the message: I was looking in all the wrong places. I wanted to be rescued, but there was no rescue in sight. It began to dawn on me that I needed to be there for myself in a new way; I needed to find my own path to wellness. I began to understand what taking ownership of my health really meant.
Sure I had become pretty good at asking for and accepting help. I was more attuned to my body and was learning to communicate her needs more clearly. I was even good at speaking up when I needed something – a different chair, a cushion, not to sit at all, and even saying “no”. But more was required.
Those of you who have been reading my blog will remember the lessons I learned on my drive to northern BC when I decided to attend in a more open fashion to my body’s responses. So, when I noticed a pain in my back or hips I allowed myself to move toward it – to be there with it and to experience what it was really like. Did it tingle? Ache? Or burn? When I did that and simply breathed into the painful area, I discovered places where I was holding tightness, anticipating the pain, and resisting it. As I continued to breathe into the area and allowed the tension to move, shift, or release, my pain lessened.
This was one of those “Aha” moments. I realized that for more than four years I had been resisting the pain and likely creating a vicious cycle. The initial pain may have been the trigger, but it seemed as if my anticipation and fear of the pain was perpetuating and even enhancing the cycle. This gave me insight into how my resistance and tensing of the already tight muscles might just be a critical part of my puzzle.
This realization empowered me. I was no longer waiting to be rescued. I became more aware of my response to the pain and even my response to the simple anticipation of pain. When I did feel pain or when I noticed myself anticipating pain I began to pay closer attention. I let myself move towards the pain – towards the fear—just being there with it, noting what I was really feeling, what I was thinking, and how bad (or not) the pain really was. Surprisingly, I found that what had made it so unbearable was the part of me who anticipated the pain – the part of me who feared how bad it might get. I began breathing into the present moment and relaxing with the actual sensations. The pain was not as bad as I had feared; there was no need for the tense muscles. And gradually I began to be able to move more freely – without a flare up.
The understanding that muscle tension might be one of the big culprits helped me to consciously soften those muscles as much I could whenever I noticed them tensing. I also began to encourage these very tight muscles to soften in other ways – exercising in the pool and providing effective acupressure with a simple tennis ball. I also began walking and doing some gentle mindful stretching every day.
I am not totally pain free all of the time, but my left hip is no longer holding forth on centre stage! I actually enjoy moving again. I even did a three-hour hike recently without a flare up. It has taken me quite a while to learn what I needed to learn, but my left hip and I are happy to see a glimpse of light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
Afterward – I thought I was so smart to have finally figured this out when I picked up a book that had already figured it out. It’s written for back suffers, but applies to any kind of pain that doctors don’t know what to do about (or even some they do). It’s called, “Back Sense” by Ronald D. Siegel, Michael Urdang, Douglas R. Johnson. It suggests that most chronic back pain may start with physical injury or strain, but is caused by tight muscles which occur in response to our fears about the pain. Mindfulness, relaxation of the tension and resuming normal activities is recommended.