The hip ache starts when I’m 52. I’m tossing and turning at night, trying to get comfortable, like a rotisserie chicken. First, on my belly, then my side, then my back, then the other side, and the turning starts again. My husband teases me that I’m cycling all night, but he’s not laughing. Finally, there’s relief with a pillow between my knees, and I fall into a deep sleep.
Arthritis. Who, me?
I managed to keep fit enough to still be a high school PE teacher in my 50s. I first notice the aching hip after an occasional ballet class. My strength seems OK, my flow and balance are still there, but something is weakening in the joints, something I only notice at night.
This was my first serious sensation of aging. Sure, I’ve had grey – rather, silver – strands for a long time now, and real wrinkles join my laugh lines along with that nasty jowly sag I hate. But this ache in my hip was not vanity, this was palpable pain. It hurt and disturbed my already fitful sleep and I wanted it gone, now.
So I began to study my movements in general and the field of arthritis medicine in particular. This is what I learned.
• The body doesn’t last forever. Bones thin, muscles atrophy, strength fades, even for me.
• Our own individual movement patterns, including poor posture, can and will create stress and strain (as well as strength and stability) that can actively break the body down, over time. The longer we live, the longer time we have to be healthy, and, yes, the longer time to become decrepit. Our lifestyle choices help determine our fate. It’s a constant work in progress, to keep active and fit, and to delay the decay.
• Arthritis can have many causes. Mine, I felt, was from a lifetime of dance, training my “turnout” and straining the hip joint. New studies show that, after 45, excessive exercise (emphasis on “excessive”) can cause arthritis. Even wearing athletic shoes as regular footwear increases the likelihood of arthritis in the knees!
• Arthritis is painful. As we age, we lose the fluid and movable space between the bones at the joints, and the bone rubbing against bone causes pain, swelling, stiffness and, ultimately, limited mobility. Limited mobility is bad and leads to, well, death.
• Pain medication is available. From herbal remedies and rubs to serious narcotics, folks will use whatever works to give relief. What works for me? What’s the most helpful yet healthful?
As a movement therapist, I began to look at these phenomena. What can I actively do to heal the current problem, correct it and anything like it that may arise in the future? What if I consciously began to move, sit and stand in a new way? Could I create space in that hip joint? Could I reduce the swelling and achy feeling through my movement itself?
In my practice with Spacial Dynamics®, a somatic approach to understanding movement, I know that the space surrounding my body is alive and full of living forces that help and even enable my movement. These ideas are core principles in my life’s work, and form the basis of my movement coaching and mentoring.
What about the spaces between the bones of the body? Could those spaces come alive as well? And, would a result be less pain and stiffness?
I experimented with myself and the damn hip. What if, instead of pressing my back towards my leg – in a hamstring stretch, for example – I actively opened the hip? I closed my eyes and envisioned the hip joint. The head of the femur, the curve of the acetabulum, expanding space between them. In doing so, I began to actively move the other way, stretch the leg away from the hip, rather than squeezing the leg into the hip in deep flexion. Space grew instead of strain. From the outside, I looked as though I were doing a common hamstring stretch, nothing fancy or different.. In my reality, I was moving quite differently, actively opening the space. This new way of thinking and moving was actually the opposite of what I had been doing my whole exercising and dancing life!
I changed the way I moved in that hip. From sitting to standing to dancing, I try to create the image of space moving where aching used to live. I still put a pillow between my knees much of the time while I sleep. Even a small pillow seems to release my hips and lower back at the same time, and it feels softer and cozier than my own knees pressed together.
When I bring this concept to my Agile Aging exercise classes for seniors, they are interested right away. Everyone has a bit or a lot of arthritis somewhere, or knows someone who has. We’ve discovered the space in our necks, our jaws, our hands, our feet, our knees and our backs. We’ve gotten stronger and more flexible without strain. We laugh and dance and ask questions and share stories.
We are learning how these new ideas can work in our everyday life, how this new idea of space can help us with our daily chores and with getting around without falling down.
We are aging with agility and grace, with a bounce in our step, a smile on our face, and, for me, the reality of pain-free space in my hip.
Valerie Baadh Garrett, 2010