Archive for November, 2020

Osteoporosis and chemo

Saturday, November 7th, 2020

After returning from a fantastic family skiing holiday seven years ago, my three kids were keen to keep the memories going by running the videos through the TV. I sat back and was enjoying the show until I saw this little old lady coming down the slopes; who was she? She was stooping and looked quite frail. Slowly it started dawning on me that her ski wear looked remarkably like mine. Milliseconds later came the cold realisation that this stranger was actually me. How could that be? I was in my mid-50s then but felt decades younger, and had a wholly different mental image of me to the one I was staring at. I always stood tall too, or so I thought, but the camera never lies does it? I watched the video again and it was even more upsetting. I know I’m getting older, but that stoop was really ageing.

After a spot of self-diagnosis, I believed I had postural problem. My shoulders and upper back always felt stiff and my neck ached, which I figured went with the sitting-at-a-desk-writing-on-a-laptop-five-days-a-week territory. I needed to sort myself out, so I saw a physiotherapist for advice. Massage eased the stiffness fairly quickly and I was given exercises to strengthen my neck muscles and help combat my stoop. From now on it was sternum to the ceiling and shoulders back and down, chin tucked in. Problem solved – or so I thought.

After three years of walking like one of the Queen’s Life Guards, as well as taking yoga classes to strengthen my core and improve my posture, I was confident I was managing the situation until I went to my sister’s birthday party and the video camera came out again. Well, m’lud the evidence was incontrovertible; there I was chatting to friends and family, chin jutting out, neck at a 20 degree angle to the floor, back rounded. Again? Still? Maybe my stoop was a little more serious than I’d realised. As it turned out, it was.

I went to see an osteopath who examined me and said I had kyphosis. I’d never heard of the word, but it means curvature of the spine, where the top of the back to appears more rounded than normal. The word comes from the Greek ‘kyphos’ which means ‘hump’ and that’s what I was developing. The causes vary and include malformation of the spinal column in the womb, osteoporosis, spinal injury, spinal arthritis, poor posture and the ageing process. In my case kyphosis was caused by years of sitting badly, the fact that I was getting older (my spinal bones were weaker and becoming compressed) and the almost total absence of oestrogen. Oestrogen? Yes, oestrogen. And it’s a far more important hormone than I ever realised; had I known this a few years ago, I would have been far more proactive in negating its absence. Here’s the back story: I was 48 when I started the menopause thanks to the chemotherapy treatment I was undergoing, then I had both my ovaries removed as a risk-reducing procedure due to my faulty BRCA1 gene, which meant, from that moment on I had no oestrogen in my body, nada, nothing, yet it’s vital to many functions including the preservation of bone density. Who knew? Well I didn’t and no clinician thought to inform me, and I’ve seen so many. But back to the kyphosis. It was not considered serious and the condition could be prevented from worsening through specific exercises and lifestyle changes. If I did nothing, my stoop would gradually become more pronounced. You may never have heard of kyphosis either, but it’s an increasingly common problem, largely due to our more sedentary lifestyles and the fact that many of us spend too much time sitting hunched over our laptops, phones and tablets.

If your neck is beginning to jut forward – even if it isn’t – now’s the time to take action. The important thing is not to slouch and not to put undue strain on your spine. NHS Choices has lots of great advice to help you, for example: make sure your chair is supportive and adjustable; keep both feet flat on the floor to distribute your weight evenly; when sitting your knees must be slightly lower than your hips to keep the spine neutral; buy a laptop stand and separate keyboard and mouse, so you do not look down at your screen but across at eye level and, finally, make a conscious effort to hold yourself properly when sitting. I try to keep a straight back and my chin tucked in, I pull my navel in to my spine to work my abdominals and strengthen my core, but as I get tired, I start to slouch. So now every 40 minutes or so, I get up and move around, make a cup of tea, go to the loo, do lots of shoulder rolls, but I also go to exercise classes to stay strong, to stand tall.

I definitely feel better now, and think I look more upright most of the time, but I feel like I’m fighting my skeleton every single day. In truth I’m really fighting decades of bad habits and a lack of oestrogen, but what’s the alternative?