If you suffer from back and neck pain, you are not alone.
According to the Medical Journal of Australia, 80% of Australians experience back pain, and 1 in 10 of us has a significant disability as a result.
Traditional treatments for back and neck pain generally focus on improving physical strength and managing pain with medication. But a growing body of research shows links between anxiety, stress and physical pain, and the need for a more holistic approach to pain management. Relaxation techniques complement physical therapies and treatments to minimise, or even replace the need for medication.
This week, Health-a-Porter spoke with Physiotherapist, Clinical Pilates instructor and co-founder of Happy Melon Studios, Simon Davey, about meditation, mindfulness and reconnecting with your body to manage back and neck pain.
Simon Davey's personal journey
Health-a-Porter: You are a trained physiotherapist specialised in body movement and mobility. How did you come across mindfulness and meditation?
Simon Davey: My journey to meditation and mindfulness was through my patients. A lot of my physiotherapy patients were complaining of anxiety and stress contributing to their back and neck pain, and a lot of my Clinical Pilates clients were struggling with stress throughout their day. I started incorporating relaxation exercises - breathing and noticing what was around them - to my Clinical Pilates classes to help patients relax and de-stress, and that led me to explore mindfulness and meditation.
Health-a-Porter: Meditation is often associated with religious beliefs and Buddhist monks. Is it possible to integrate meditation to our everyday life?
Absolutely. When we were researching the concept for Happy Melon Studios, it became apparent quite quickly that meditation classes weren't broadly accessible. We believe that meditation is a state of mind that everyone can have access to, and it doesn’t necessarily require a spiritual or religious connection.
My mantra is 'busy is a reality, pausing is a necessity and stress is a choice'.
We choose to have a busy life, and that is ok. But there are techniques that everyone can find space for to reduce stress, be it mindfulness, meditation, or whatever helps you slow your mind a little, like taking the dog for a walk.
Managing stress through mindfulness
Health-a-Porter: It sounds great! Can you tell us a little bit more about managing stress through mindfulness?
Stress is a natural response in our body. We can't necessarily avoid situations that cause stress, but you can stop feeding into it and letting it grow to cause physical symptoms like back and neck pain.
The stress response was developed to protect us if we were in danger - the fight or flight response if we saw a scary looking animal – except now we evoke that response in the blink of an eye if we are stuck at a red light or late for a meeting. That same stress response is happening multiple times in our day to day life.
Meditation and mindfulness help you notice when these triggers come in and allow you to react to them as they happen.
Mindfulness is a really nice tool to allow you to take a bit of time in your day to just be exactly where you are. It's all about being present and in the moment, and that is not easily achieved. It is quite a challenge and a skill to be right where you are and not be thinking about what you will be doing next and what has happened in the past.
Health-a-Porter: How do you incorporate mindfulness and meditation into your work as a physiotherapist?
Every class at Happy Melon, including my Clinical Pilates classes, starts and finishes in the same way. I take a few minutes to allow people to ‘land’ in the class and at the end of class there is a short meditation practice that helps people slow down and connect with their breath before they leave the room.
Our brains are wired to always think about what is coming next, what's on the to-do list, and often clients have already left the room mentally even before the class or physio session is over. The mindfulness exercises are designed to help people find those little moments in their day that they can take time for themselves to stop and breath.
When to see a physiotherapist
Health-a-Porter: What are the most common issues that you see as a physiotherapist?
Physical pain is most often a reaction to stress. My patients often talk about the small things that are evoking a stress response in their lives. Managing a young family, being busy with kids and work; it's those little issues in everyday life that compound and create a stress response like back and neck pain.
I see many patients put a lot of pressure on themselves to look to the world like they are ok, but beneath the surface, they struggling.
Health-a-Porter: Let's talk about the user journey. What is my first port of call if I'm suffering from back and neck pain?
Physiotherapists are trained in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of acute injuries. They can formulate a rehabilitation program if you have an injury. If you have back and neck pain, you can see a GP or go straight to a physiotherapist. Referrals are not required for a physiotherapy appointment.
Get started today with this simple mindfulness exercise
Just close your eyes and listen to three breaths once a day, and try to do that every day.
When there is this bubbling away feeling in your stomach or your chest, whenever you are felling anxiety or stress, that's the best moment to take a few seconds to reconnect with your breath. It's a simple tip, but it can do so much for your health.
Health-a-Porter pro tip
If you are suffering from chronic back pain, you may be eligible for the Enhanced Primary Care Program (EPC).
EPC is a government scheme which can provide a Medicare rebate for up to 5 Physiotherapy sessions per year for chronic and complex conditions. It has strict guidelines about who qualifies and for which conditions but if you think you may be eligible you should discuss this with your GP.