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Bad backs, stress and surviving Christmas

It has to be said, Christmas, for all the partying and festive spirit, is often a time of physical and emotional stress. Christmas shopping, family pressures, finalising work, fitting in visits to friends and relations and worries about the cost or it all, can literally be a pain in the neck. It is a difficult time for professionals such as teachers approaching term end or hairdressers coping with the seasonal rush.  Carers struggle looking after loved ones and those bereaved during the year suffer a painful reminder.
First there's the physical side of things. Patients often run into trouble at Christmas because of the complete change in their normal patterns of activity. People's usual active lifestyles or hobbies are suspended, they sit for much longer in softer chairs or conversely, they stand up for hours at parties or drive for long distances.
Then there's the psychological stress of Christmas, which can exacerbate underlying weaknesses in the body's framework and lead to very unfestive muscle pain in the neck, shoulders and back. Stress can also magnify existing problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, asthma, arthritis and hypertension.
Stress starts at the basic instinctual level, with the "flight or fight" response. Our bodies are geared to dealing with the everyday stresses of living, but if stress is extreme, unusual or long-lasting, the body's normal mechanisms may not cope and blood pressure and glucose levels rise in preparation for `fight or flight'.
During the festive season, neither response is really an option. `Christmas rage' is hardly to be recommended and it is unlikely you can evade your social duties. So tension is held in and can set off the health problems.
Problems can be compounded says because people often don't recognise they are stressed or, because there is so much on their minds, they don't face up to it.
As an Osteopath, Andrew Gilmour often finds, for example, that patients who come to him at this time of year with aches and pains also report a host of peripheral symptoms such as headaches, breathing changes, poor sleep patterns, lethargy, irritability and digestive problems. They don't realise that these symptoms are most probably associated with stress, but recognition can often be the key to release.


1. Break car journeys. Whenever possible, stretch like a cat, gently moving your arms around, bringing your knees up to your hips and stretching your whole body. A simple walk for five minutes will relieve postural fatigue.
2. Choose supportive chairs and have regular breaks from sitting.
3. Try to make your activity pattern not too dissimilar from that in everyday life.
4. Take a walk. This is an excellent way to relieve physical and emotional strain. A lot of stress results from over-attention to a particular problem. It's amazing what some fresh air will do.
5. Prioritise. Try to get the important jobs done before they become urgent. Urgency increases stress. Some pre-Christmas tasks, which seem critical, really can wait.
6. Plan ahead. If you intend to hit the New Year Sales, take someone with you to help carry heavy bags and take them back to the car regularly. Wear sensible shoes.
7. Relax. If you feel stressed, sit somewhere quiet, put your hands on your abdomen, relax, listen to your breathing and feel you hands slowly rise and fall on your stomach. Listen to soothing music, read a book, or watch something funny on the television.
8. Write things down. If you can't decide what to do, write down the pros and cons to help clarify the problem. Don't let it go round and round in your mind.
9. Make time for yourself. Don't be slaves to the festive season, it's a holiday. Be realistic about what you can achieve - in the kitchen as well as on the motorway.
10. Help is at hand. If you fall a victim to the strains of Christmas and it's easily done - putting your back out lifting the turkey out of the oven is a favorite - consider getting help particularly if the pain isn't settling after a few days.
As an Osteopath, Andrew will take a case history to build a picture of your lifestyle and will examine your muscles and joints to pin down the cause of pain. Treatment, which can include gentle manipulation and massage, is designed specifically for your particular problem and its' individual needs.

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