'My search for a back pain cure'

Vicky Joseph

Vicky Joseph’s back pain started while she was on a training walk, preparing for a trekking holiday in Nepal.

'I’m constantly thinking about how I’m sitting, walking or standing'

Vicky Joseph

The pain got so severe that she became depressed and had to leave her job.

She spent years searching for a cure for the pain. She consulted specialists up and down the country and abroad – from orthopaedic surgeons to faith healers.

Five years and more than 50 specialists later, Vicky has stopped her search after discovering pilates.

Surgery and physiotherapy helped ease the pain, but taking up pilates is a lifestyle change that is helping her manage her back pain over the long term.

Vicky, from East Finchley in north London, says she is now nearly back to her old self. “I walked home from my pilates class the other day,” she says. “It’s a two-hour, seven-mile walk. Before pilates, I couldn’t have done anything like that.”

Her pilates instructor identified a problem that no one, including Vicky, had spotted – her poor posture. “I would never have believed that improving your posture could have such an impact on pain,” she says.

Active life

Before the pain started, it seemed unlikely that Vicky would suffer from back pain. She led an active life and was very sporty. Her exercise routine included tennis, running, cycling, windsurfing and skiing.

But in January 2000, on the training walk, pain erupted in her lower back and right leg. She went to see a specialist, who said it would heal on its own.

“I was advised to take it easy,” she says. “To keep active, but not do any intense exercise.”

However, the pain gradually got worse and Vicky was unable to go on the trek.

“The pain was constant and often excruciating,” she says. “I couldn’t stand or walk for more than a few minutes. I couldn’t even sit at the dinner table – I had to kneel.”

After a year-and-a-half of pain, Vicky was feeling suicidal and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. She took six months' sick leave from work.

When she finally returned to work at the Movement for Reform Judaism, she resigned after a few months. “I just couldn’t manage it physically or emotionally,” she says.

She devoted her time to searching for a cure for her back pain. “I was on a mission to find out what was causing this problem,” she says. “I was seeing a different therapist every few weeks.”

Never give up

But she never got a satisfactory answer. “The cause of the pain was never properly diagnosed,” she says.

The many different reasons that she was given included: "It’s all in the mind”, “It's trauma from giving birth too quickly" and "You've got one leg shorter than the other”.

To keep her spirits up, she put up a sign at home saying "Never Give Up Hope".

Then Vicky had a breakthrough. German specialists identified a ruptured disc as the source of the pain and did an artificial disc replacement on Vicky in September 2005.

There was some improvement, but she had been hoping for more. Her search for a cure continued, leading her to “a brilliant physiotherapist and pilates instructor”.

“She was the first person to notice my posture issues,” she says. Looking back, Vicky says the walking injury that sparked the pain was probably the “last straw” after years of poor posture and exercising badly.

She remembers how she used to slump backwards when she was standing, putting pressure on the lower back. She also never gave much thought to how she sat at her desk.

It’s possible that exercising had contributed to her back pain because of poor technique, causing muscle imbalances and weak buttock, back and core abdominal muscles. 

Two years of pilates has nearly restored Vicky to her former self. “I’m not 100%, but I’m getting there,” she says. She now leads an active life and has taken up skiing and cycling again.

For Vicky, back care involves more than just twice-weekly pilates classes. “It’s a life-long commitment to looking after my body,” she says. “I spend around 20 minutes every day doing some stretching. I’m constantly thinking about how I’m sitting, walking or standing. I’m just more careful now about how I use my body.”

Page last reviewed: 18/09/2014

Next review due: 18/09/2016


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The 7 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Brian P W H said on 02 July 2015

I can read in Vicki's report a number of problems similar to those I have experienced,though perhaps not as serious.It has given me confidence that Pilate's would help me recover the ability to walk comfortably again and will search for the nearest practitioner.

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Caroline58 said on 19 January 2015

Vicky this has prompted me to write something, and so glad that you are finding some relief for the back at last.
I have had on and off back pain for over 30 years! It all started with a slip on some ice falling hard on my lower back. I didn't seek any help then, didn't know in those days who to see - so it slowly improved - but never 100%. A few years later after carrying a heavy piece of furniture I suffered severe sciatica - fortunately I got physio on the NHS for some time and eventually I was pretty active after, though I was careful. Unfortunately ten years ago I I suffered a couple of fractures one major to the shoulder and before that the ankle, it really upset my lower and upper back intermittently ever since.

I have spent a fortune on private physio and osteopath to keep going over the years, and presently as again my lower back is very painful with inflamed disc. Tried yoga but ended up with sciatica. In the last couple of years I have had a referral with an NHS physio for shoulder tendonitis pain, and low back pain, and they keep pointing at posture for this, which I am sure is a contributing factor, I am interested in trying pilates hopefully to improve this area at least. Not sure my doctor is that keen on resending me to the physio, but it did help. The pain is getting me down terribly and my work livelihood in doubt now, causing me to get stressed which just aggravates. I shall hope that Pilates may be a pathway.

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Lesley2000 said on 06 August 2014

I am glad Vicky has discovered, but her comment regarding 'never giving up' is very apt. I still don't understand why thousands of people are almost forced to move into the private sector for physio, chiropractic or osteopathic treatment to mobilise their spine, despite the NHS Choices website stating that a variety of methods of treatment will be used and against NICE guidelines

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Gymspineveryday said on 07 April 2014

Hi Vicky so glad you have recovered. Would it be possible please to let me know which Pilates instructor you used as I would like to learn Pilates. Thanks

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larneylee said on 15 March 2014

Hi Vicky,
Great to have read your story. I'm a 45 year 'young' guy who for the past 2 years has been suffering with ever increasing back pain that has me quite worried. At the age of 20 I had a surfing accident and I fractured my L6 vertebra, knocked my hip out of place and torn a lot of back muscles. Following this since moving to the UK I have played competitive football and played just about any other sport which was going. After any sport my back was awfully sore which I have just lived with. 8 years ago I had a snowboard accident and snapped off my 'tail bone' which after 2 years of sitting on an inflatable scooter tube gives me no further pain. To cut a long story short; the frequency at which my pain was giving me pain increased 3.5 years ago. I decided to go to pilates but something happened in a lesson and I was in agonising pain for 3 weeks. Following this, I rested and still had problems. I visited a chiropractise but this caused me incredible agony. After years of been shipped around the NHS and physios I have been told I have arthritis now and have to halt all forms of sports and will be attending acupuncture soon which I am preparing my mind for mostly so that I can gain the max from the process. I am very interested in pilates as people sing it's praises and I might have been to a less 'experienced class/teacher'. Any guidance on recommended pilates teachers centres etc for west London Shepherds Bush area by anyone would be most appreciated. I'm ready to change my lifestyle and employ new daily techniques to conquer or improve my life. I can't live on pain killers which zonk me out. Any ideas, techniques, ideas etc would be most appreciated. Kind regards, Lee

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squire23 said on 25 April 2012

Hi Vicky & Lorraine
I currently suffer from severe low back pain myself, after I had horrible fall at home down the cellar steps, that are pure stone back in October last year.
Today after many accidents due to pain, I finally saw a physiotherapist, who was shocked to hear that I had been suffering for months and no health professional thought to refer me for physio earlier, instead of accusing me of using medical services when it wasn't needed. Yes I did in a way because it felt like no health professional was listening to me, when I told then about the severe pain, so how dare they accuse me of something that was mainly they own fault, for no doing something earlier!!
I'm now glad at last to be getting the help I so desperately needed for months!!

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lorichal said on 20 October 2011

Hi Vicky I too have had back pain since early 20s i'm now 42 and nothing has helped except pilates. I've tried rest, heat, pain killers, acupuncture, hydrotherapy, massage, running and riding my bike. I have visited the doctor many times and I had an x-ray which showed i had a protruding disc probably due to bad posture. I go to pilates once a week but exercise everyday for about 20 mins which really helps. I have recently had a baby and feeding him was terrible thats when i decided to try to get the pain under control and started going to pilates which i glad i did. I have done pilates before but to be honest i went to the weekly class and but i didn't do any exercise at home which is really important because you need to do exercise daily. You look great in your picture really healthy and happy keep up the good work! Lorraine

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