Backache? Snap out of it

After a nasty gym injury that froze his spine, Peter Chapman feared he might never stand upright again - let alone acquire a taut, six-pack stomach. But a course of chiropractic treatment straightened him out, and he's now the star of his yoga class
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Indy Lifestyle Online

My quest to discover my long-lost and much-missed six-pack ended with me on all fours, mewing pitifully, perspiration slowly dripping off the end of my nose. The rest of the gym carried on cycling/rowing/running, each of them determined not to "notice" my strange behaviour. Maybe they thought I'd been a cat in an earlier life. What happened? Well, as part of my midriff masterplan, I had begun to incorporate twisting sit-ups - left elbow to right knee, etc - into my exercise routine. I think they're supposed to add definition to your obliques, but no one said anything about a flash of pain sufficiently powerful to catapult me over on to my front. When I came to, I couldn't move.

Men in gyms don't ask for help. They never say, "Excuse me, my back has gone into a series of incredibly painful spasms. Could you give me a hand?" No, men go to gyms to bolster their sense of invincibility. Naturally, then, I struggled to my feet on my own and inched down the stairs and into the changing-rooms. The next bit was fun - attempting to get out of my gym kit and into my T-shirt and jeans with a totally inflexible spine. It took for ever. Eventually, I found my way out on to Chiswick High Road, shuffling along, an obsolete cyborg running low on power. Little old ladies (septuagenarians, mostly) pushing their shopping trolleys accelerated past me as if I weren't there.

That night, I sat tensely on the edge of the sofa, munching painkillers and flashing resentful looks at a world that was clearly intent on having a laugh at my expense, when my wife said: "Don't you think you'd better go and see someone?" Normally, I have a range of standard responses to that question. Either I blow air out between my pursed lips and shake my head, meaning to suggest it isn't quite as easy as that, or I say, "Mmmmmm", or I say, "Could do, s'pose." This time, fearing that any sudden movement might result in my snapping in two, I said, "OK." She mentioned that it might be worth trying a chiropractic clinic just around the corner.

The truth is, I didn't know what "chiropractic" was, apart from, maybe, something to do with the back. Fortunately, help was at hand. "It's a natural form of alternative health care," said Dr Matt Germaine, originally from Vancouver, Canada, but now resident in west London and the chiropractor I consulted for my back pain. "We don't use drugs or surgery but try instead to correct misalignments in the spine - subluxations - manually. It is no good, though, simply to treat the symptoms. We take a holistic approach and try to help people to uncover the sources of stress in their lives."

It sounded good, and, certainly, if anyone were ever an advert for a discipline, it is Dr Matt - he is the very picture of straight-backed health. We started off with some questions. I breezed through them, until he asked me whether I had ever suffered from back pain before. I instinctively replied, "No", associating such pain with advanced decrepitude - after all, I am a man not that far removed from his absolute prime. Then I remembered the dull ache I contracted whenever I wandered around an art gallery for more than half an hour. I also recalled two or three spells in the past 18 months when I'd been woken from sleep by a grinding tightness between my shoulder blades. Maybe I did have a dodgy back.

My physical examination included my placing each of my feet on a separate set of scales in order to measure how much weight I was carrying on each side. I was clearly tilting over to one side, a phenomenon confirmed when Dr Matt checked the alignment of my shoulders and hips. My left shoulder and hip were a full inch higher than those on my right. I was also attached to a machine that measured electrical activity in the muscles on either side of the spine. Mine were too high and unbalanced. Dr Matt didn't seem to be worried, however, and asked me to climb on to the padded couch.

"Chiropractors make what we call adjustments," he said. "We correct misalignments in the spine that are compromising your nervous system. This is important because nerves run from the spinal column to all your major organs, affecting their performance. People tend to think chiropractors only treat backs. It's not true. We can help people with all sorts of conditions, from menstrual problems to ear infections, but we treat them by making adjustments."

Dr Matt went on to tell me the story of how he first became interested in the job. He said: "My father had a bad back and went to have it treated. He was so impressed, he sent all three of his sons for an examination. My eldest brother, by then into his early teens, was still suffering from childhood enuresis, or bed-wetting. The compromised nerves in his back interfered with the communication between his bladder and his brain. So, he didn't get the message that his bladder was full while he was asleep. As you can imagine, when the condition was resolved, it changed his life."

This was all very reassuring, except that now it was time for the adjustments. Although sometimes Dr Matt, in common with many other chiropractors, uses low-force instruments that mimic the action of the hands, he'd decided to get to grips with me without the help of any artificial aids. Understandably, lying down on a couch and allowing someone to manipulate your spine and neck raises issues of trust. All I can say is, it has never hurt. Sometimes you hear alarmingly loud clicks, but, rather than pain, you experience a feeling of release. After all, the chiropractors' operating principle is: "Do no harm." It's true, though, that you have to learn to let yourself go, as your instinct tells you to resist.

Within a week or two, the acute stage of my back pain had passed. Now, as I was becoming something of a believer, I wanted to know how I hadn't heard much about chiropractic before. "In North America, there is a far greater awareness of the good it can do for your general health," Dr Matt said. "In the US, for example, there are more visits to chiropractors than there are to GPs' surgeries. In Britain, people are more familiar with the work of osteopaths.

"There is some overlap between osteopathy and chiropractic. Both offer alternative health care. Although the training is different - I completed a five-year MSc, while osteopaths work for four years to gain a BSc - the defining characteristic of chiropractic is its concentration on the nervous system, adjusting the spine to facilitate the optimum performance of these nerves."

After the first 10 appointments, Dr Matt conducted a review of my progress. Not only had the initial discomfort in my lower back completely gone, but the discrepancy in the height of my shoulders had been halved. True, I was completing some light exercises each day - head turns and shoulder rolls - but they took only a couple of minutes. Chiropractors expect you to participate in your recovery and in your continued good health. You don't have to live like a monk, but you should build a certain awareness of the state of your back.

As a result, I decided to swap the gym for the yoga mat. It seemed an appropriate move. I now go to an Ashtanga yoga class once a week. And, accepting that most men don't seem to have been perfectly designed to stretch and twist, I suspect it is helping me gradually to reintroduce some flexibility into my fortysomething body. Within the confines of the class, I'm developing something of a reputation for my downward-facing dog (an on-all-fours stretching posture). Believe me: it possesses a charm all its own.

My gym injury changed the way I view the world. Now, when I see a baby in a buggy, I notice how, in lieu of nothing much going on in their lives at that particular moment, they clutch their feet and pull them up to their heads. OK, so few of us - Madonna aside - are likely to rediscover such extraordinary flexibility, but maybe treatments such as chiropractic can encourage clients to take a bit more responsibility for their own health. Any scepticism I may have initially felt has been dispelled, simply because it has worked. Indeed, the only shortcoming I can discover is chiropractic's absolute inability to create a six-pack. If that's your heart's desire, get down to the gym, but do be careful of those twisting sit-ups. They can hurt.

Dr Matt Germaine is taking appointments for his new clinic at 2 Grafton Road, Worcester Park, Surrey (020-8335 5445), from 1 September

Principles of chiropractic

* The body is a self-healing and self-regulating organism.

* The nervous system is the controlling system of the body.

* Physical, chemical and emotional stresses cause tension in the nervous system leading to, in turn, misalignments in the spine.

* Misalignments further inhibit the operation of the body's nervous system.