Here is something dumb I did.
I have spent years — literal years! — telling people to get straight to a physiotherapist about their maladies. Dodgy shoulder? Physio. Dicky knee? Physio! Small niggles, left untreated, can quickly blow out into major issues, I lectured. And yet I utterly failed to take my own advice when my lower back started to trouble me at the beginning of the year. For months I tried DIY fixes. It never got better, but it never got so bad it put me out of action. I always swore I’d get to the physio… later.
After months of ignoring the problem, I soon learnt the hard way.Credit:iStock
Then, coumadin labeling inevitably, I threw my back out in June (yes, I’m now at the age where I can use the phrase “throw my back out”) and spent a week barely able to tie my shoes or roll over in bed. Only then, when forced to, did I finally see a terrific physiotherapist — who gave me a very excellent treatment plan. Months later, I am a new man. But if only I’d seen her months earlier!
That physio — Suyi Chan, senior physiotherapist at Strength and Pilates in Surry Hills, Sydney — is diplomatic when I try to get her to agree how dumb I was. “New Sam would have chosen differently,” she answers instead.
Chan treats many of the problems you’d expect (rolled ankles, wonky necks, “clicky” shoulders and “twanged” backs), and some you wouldn’t (jaw pain — “it’s cropping up more as people get more stressed”). I’m not saying you should run to a physio with every one of these issues, no matter how small. Some things really do go away after a few days’ rest, no harm done. But Chan says that if you’re troubled by something that’s hung around for more than a week, and your usual strategies to ease its symptoms aren’t working, then it’s time to seek help.
“[Or] if you’ve got neural symptoms, sharp shooting pain that is moving to your limbs, then definitely see someone sooner,” she adds. “Like, now.”
Personal trainer Sam Downing.Credit:Rhett Wyman
There are plenty of understandable reasons to avoid seeing a physio. Lack of funds is a big one, as is lack of time (though consults are now done via the oh-so-convenient Telehealth — indeed, that’s how many physios see patients amid lockdown). But I’ll be honest. The actual reason I procrastinated for so long is because, deep down, I was afraid a physio would order me to stop doing something I love: exercising.
Chan says a good physiotherapist won’t punish you for your injuries, or catastrophise them. Instead, they’ll take time to understand your priorities and tailor a treatment plan that helps you both recover and continue doing what you love. And if they do stop you from doing something, it won’t be forever — and they’ll help you understand why you should take a break.
“I often say it’s a cop-out to just say, ‘if it hurts to do this thing, stop doing it.’ But then at what point can you go back to it?” Chan says. “That’s our job. We teach you how to go back to it.”
For my treatment, she assigned a series of stretches and exercises for me to do at home, designed to strengthen my weak spots and help me move better — I was diligent about actually doing these. We checked in about once a fortnight over five sessions to iron out my kinks, update my rehab program, and/or for dry-needling (a first for me) on trouble spots in my glutes and shoulder.
Thanks to Chan, my treatment’s a big success — even though it started months after it should have. I feel better, but I’ve also learned how to look after myself better, and what warning signs to watch for. Old Sam might’ve ignored those, but New Sam knows better.
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