Yoga - a lifeline for back pain?
Published on 01 July 2008
For Professor John Aplin, one of the yoga teachers involved in Arthritis Research UK’s back pain trial, yoga proved to be a lifeline after breaking his back in a serious fall while walking in the Peak District 12 years ago. He spoke to Arthritis Today about how yoga was central to his recovery.
When Iyengar yoga teacher John Aplin faces his new class of novice yoga practitioners in September – all hoping to find relief from their back pain – his memory might find itself winding back 12 years.
Professor Aplin, who is a teacher on Arthritis Research UK’s trial to find out if yoga can help people suffering from low back pain, had been qualified as a yoga teacher for just a year when he fell 30 feet off a crag in the Dark Peak while walking with his two young sons and their friend.
“My sons’ friend had gone ahead and got into difficulty trying to climb down a waterfall, and just as I got to him he slipped down into the gulley,” remembers John Aplin, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at the University of Manchester.
“As I was helping him, I heard cries from my two boys, aged six and 11, who were on the overhanging cliff above me. Fearing the worst I made a snap decision to get to them as quickly as possible by the most direct route. I made the classic error of not looking after myself and fell 30 feet onto the rocks below.”
Remaining conscious throughout his ordeal, John Aplin was aware that he had broken his ribs and was unable to breathe properly. He actually walked a few steps before collapsing in complete agony, unable to move. He broke about 12 bones in the fall, including ribs, a wrist, fingers and toes, but most significantly, three vertebrae in his back.
Luckily, two passing walkers made sure the boys were unhurt, and sounded the alarm. An ambulance arrived but was unable to reach him, so eventually, after 3 hours, John was “hauled off the mountain by men with beards from Glossop mountain rescue team.”
Doctors at first feared that John might not walk again because of possible damage to his spinal cord. These fears were happily unfounded, and what followed was 6 weeks of complete immobility in Manchester Royal Infirmary, while his bones slowly healed and his collapsed lung mended. Even during that time of enforced bed rest, with a bolster to liftand support his spine, he started doing deep breathing exercises, known in yoga terms as “pranayama,” which he found brought alertness and evenness of mood and made him feel less helpless.
Weak and frail, he then started the long process of rehabilitation, before managing to return to work full-time, then as a senior lecturer at the university, 4 and a half months after the accident.
During that time he slowly started to practice yoga again. “I had lost weight and muscle mass and in a sense I was like a yoga beginner physically, but on the other hand I had all that knowledge,” he explains. “That came in very useful when I was able to go back to being a yoga teacher again!
John started doing a remedial yoga class at the Iyengar Institute in Dukinfield, Tameside, but was also lucky enough to get a yoga programme specially devised for him by BKS Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga, direct from his home in Pune in India.
“The yoga helped me hugely, massively,” says John Aplin. “It built up my strength and balance and also acted as a diagnostic. Armed with the right knowledge and teaching, little by little you find out what you can and can’t do. At first I was very unsure and concerned about causing more damage to my back, but I went very slowly. I did supported back bends but wasn’t allowed to do forward bends for a long time. Finally I got back to standing on my head!
“Who knows what would have happened, with or without yoga, but yoga was tremendously important in giving me confidence to know what I could do.”
John Aplin made a complete recovery from his injuries, and is soon to start teaching yoga to beginners as part of Arthritis Research UK’s yoga and back pain trial, in two venues near his home in Stockport.
“My personal as well as my professional experience has made me very enthusiastic about this trial,” he says. “One of things we are trying to do for back pain patients is to give them tools to deal with their back pain more effectively; not to use yoga to treat the odd episode of back pain, but to give them a means by which they can deal with it in the long term. If I became sedentary I’m sure I’d start to feel my back again. But I know what to do.”
The Arthritis Research UK’s £284,321 trial to find out if back pain can be helped by regular yoga is due to end in 2010. More than 200 people are taking part in the study, being run by the University of York.