Taking care of your back

by Aitor Cullinan


Aitor Cullinan, small market gardener, Claregalway, back pain


When I was about 18, I started getting a niggle in the small of my back. At 20, I worked part time as a pizza chef, which involved a lot of core twisting, and being on your feet for 10 hours. A few months of this and the niggle turned into a pain, and so began my love affair with my back. Back then I was lucky to find an amazing Kiwi Chiropractor, who diagnosed me immediately… one leg longer than the other, which twists your lower vertebrates, and traps nerves which causes pain. He made adjustments there and then which sorted it out and told me to come back for a check-up in a year.

Unfortunately, he did such a good job, that I did not feel any discomfort in my back come check-up time, so I didn’t go to it. In fact, it was 3 years before my back started troubling me again. At this point, I went looking for my Kiwi wizard again, only to find out he’d gone back home. No problem, I will just find another chiropractor. But the next chiropractor I found was very different and seemed to have a different treatment philosophy. They were using very different techniques, which left me sore at times, and did not seem to be improving my back. And they kept on rescheduling appointments for me, saying I needed further care. After 4 sessions with no improvement, I gave up on this chiropractor.

My back slowly deteriorated to the point where I would feel pain if I was standing still or sitting down for more than half an hour. I tried various treatments… osteopath, chiropractor (2 more), shiatsu massage… but none seemed to offer lasting relief.

Before farming, I had a job which involved half my time in the field, and half my time in the office. I loved the time in the field because I was on my feet and moving. I hated the time in the office, as sitting in front of a computer was torture for my back.

I started doing bits of yoga and stretching, and found that this helped a bit, especially at acute times… but it would always be niggling away there.

Farming back

So eventually I gave up the office job and started farming. My first year, I was doing a lot of digging…a lot. And not doing it right, so my back got worse. Then I got myself into a situation where I had to throw a pig into the back of a trailer (don’t ask, long story). The job got done, but the pig was a heavy, squirming mass, and the pull, lift, twist, throw motion absolutely wrecked my back. I was barely able to walk for 3 weeks, my left glute became so atrophied, from being carried to avoid the back pain, that I had to get physio to sort that out.

Basically, not a great start for my back in my new career

Alexander Technique

At some stage after the pig throwing, some smart person put me on to Alexander technique. There is a lot to it, but at its most basic level it’s about good posture, and about moving right, ergonomically and efficiently. There are practitioners that you can go to see, and what they do is to teach you how to manage yourself.

Richard Brennan is one of the best practitioners in the country and he has been teaching the technique for years (http://www.alexander.ie/). I went to see him after recovering from my atrophied glute. The first session was an interview, assessment and introductory to the technique. As part of the assessment, he got me to lie on a bed, and made very subtle adjustments to my lying posture, by gently placing his hands on parts he thought needed relaxing. It seemed like magic… my muscles seemed to melt under his hands… but he said he was doing nothing, just bringing my attention to it (I still think he has magic hands)

The second session, he told me to bring my long handled tools with me, so he could see how I used them. I dug a couple of holes in his garden with them, and he gave me advice on how best to use them.

I had two more sessions with him, where he taught me more about the technique, in specific situations, and for my specific needs. I came away from Richard with a tailor made wholistic management system for my back. And it was something that we had devised together, so it was more motivating for me to implement. It was text-book empowerment…now I can fish.

Personal back management

I have since taken what I have learned from Richard, and developed it further, to fit my everyday needs on the farm. I have learned to listen to my body, become aware of all the little twinges and niggles as I move, observe how the way I move affects them, and adapt accordingly to improve. It’s an ongoing and evolving process, and my body will change also, so my behaviour will be able to adapt accordingly.

These days my back management is small. I try to spend about 10-20 minutes a day doing back stretching exercises, and try to get a 20 minute back rest lie down after lunch… I say try because I don’t always succeed, but always feel the benefit when I do. Apart from that, I try to be conscious of the way I move all the time and try to do it in the most efficient way possible. I feel I have developed a better relationship with my body, through better awareness of it. It can be said that the body is a very useful tool… but like all tools, it needs care to function at its best.

And it has helped me to really appreciate my body.

When woofers come to the farm, I try to impart a little of what I know about good movement to them, and some are very receptive, and it’s great to see young minds absorbing useful information. There is an assumption that if you do physical work, you are going to have a sore back, it’s just a given. But I don’t think this has to be the case.

Just because you do what you love, does not mean you have to endure pain to do it. Maybe.

I feel I work better and happier with good body awareness.

Keep doing what you love.

Aitor Cullinan