Everyone seems to have their “thing” – something that they will constantly, instinctively, notice in either themselves or those around them. For some people it’s clothes, others it’s hair – one of my best friends has a “thing” about the way people walk.
I always notice people’s spines. Which is a bit weird, I know. If you go up to someone who has amazing hair and complement them on it, likelihood is that you’ll make their day. But if I were to go up to someone and say “hey, I just wanted to say that you have a really beautiful spine”…well it doesn’t exactly sound like a socially acceptable thing to say.
My obsession with spines is not a coincidence. When I was 14 years old, I was diagnosed with Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis (AIS), which without any fancy medical explanations, is the name for when the spine grows curvy, instead of straight.
Scoliosis is a pretty unpublicised disorder, but is deceptively common. Most people have a slight curvature in their spine, but as many as 3-5 adolescents in every 1000 have a curvature severe enough not only to be classed as AIS, but also to merit medical intervention.
I was lucky in that even when my condition was at its most severe, years of ballet lessons had allowed me to develop a naturally good posture. Because of this, it was only when looking closely and carefully that you could spot the wonky waist and shoulder blades that were symptomatic of my S shape spine.
But like most teenage girls, I was my own worst enemy, which meant that I always noticed my not-quite-right posture when I passed the mirror, and couldn’t help but compare this to the perfectly straight spines of those in my ballet class. It’s still the first thing that my eye, unavoidably, goes to when I see people in the gym, and I look on with that mixture of awe, admiration and just a tad of envy when I see someone with naturally perfect alignment.
I had spinal correction surgery at the age of 17, which involves two titanium rods being inserted into the spine, with 20 or so titanium screws that are fused to the vertebrae to straighten out the curvature. My surgeon achieved over 90% correction, an incredibly successful outcome of the intricate 14 hour operation.
When I first started going to the gym regularly, it was with the ultimate goal of developing the muscles in my back, which since the surgery had been severely weakened. After the operation, I’d been offered no physiotherapy, rehabilitation or exercise therapy, so I had no way of knowing whether or not I would fall back into bad habits that could somehow undo the positive effects of the surgery. All I knew was that it was important to strengthen both sides of my back so that my posture stayed good and the curvatures didn’t worsen.
Back and posture is now one of my favourite things to train because the stronger my back gets, the further I come from the curvy-spined 17 year old who hated looking in the mirror during ballet class.
Look after your spine and it’ll look after you.
In honour of Scoliosis Awareness Month, next week I’ll be posting my list of best exercises for a stronger back– so stay tuned!