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My affliction with neck, back and shoulder pain began almost seven years ago and sprang from an unlikely cause – Ashtanga yoga. I had spent the better part of two years pursuing my dream of successfully completing the first series of Ashtanga, and was practicing about four or five times per week for about 90 minutes per practice. Unfortunately, due to some physiological quirks of my skeleton, my right elbow and shoulder are not completely straight. Two years of intensive vinyasas led to supraspinatus tendonitis, to the point where – unless I was in my practice – I could not lift my right arm above waist level. Needless to say a competitive spirit and an unhealthy dose of perfectionism had led me to self-injury. My father, who hadn’t seen my for a year, saw me try to open his car door while I was visiting, asked what was wrong and told me to get to a physiotherapist right away before the condition became chronic.
What followed next was a five-year odyssey of physiotherapy, ultrasound, kinesiology tape, painkillers and anti-inflammatories (used briefly then discarded) and exercise in order to try to reverse the chronic inflammation and cure the condition. I stopped yoga altogether, and regularly undertook physiotherapy exercises with weights in the gym to build specific muscles. I could get the condition under control and lead a normal life, but whenever I was travelling heavily and using a computer (laptop and desktop) the condition would return, to the point where my right arm would be all pins-and-needles and my neck and back would create an intense nerve pain. The pain and its location led to serious sleep deprivation, which in turn led to low energy, depression and to a certain degree of desperation and anxiety. Not to mention many thousands of euros spent in painful physiotherapy, and the statement of my physiotherapists that the next step would have to be surgery. A bleak panorama.
Unwilling to go under the knife to fix what – for me – was a lousy sports injury, I was fortunately led by a friend to a brilliant physiotherapist who was able to reverse the condition sufficiently for me to rebuild and strengthen the necessary muscles to stabilise the tendons. I had been to this point in the recovery before, only to regress once the rigours of my job (travel, computers) re-asserted themselves.
That is when a close friend provided me with an “acupressure mat” or what is also referred to as a “bed of nails”. It is a massage mat with plastic discs containing spikes inserted into it, and one lies on it for an intensive acupressure treatment (for details of how and why it works see the link below). Totally sceptical of the concept at first – and frankly finding it weird – I tried out a Swedish standard nail mat and another similar India-made clone, named after an Indian goddess. The mats helped, and most importantly, they were an immediate cure for my insomnia. After the first 10 minutes, I would usually fall asleep on the mat, wake an hour later and go to bed for a restful sleep.
There is substantial empirical evidence available for their effectiveness for insomnia and pain relief, as well as many other ailments. The best evidence I have seen is a study presented at the Omega Center in New York in 1999 which found that “out of 126 subjects, 98% reported pain relief, 96% reported relaxation, 94% improvement in the quality of sleep, and 81% reported an increase in energy level. Approximately half of the subjects with allergy problems reported their symptoms’ relief. Among those who tested the method while having no particular health problems, more than a half nevertheless reported one or more positive effects… “.
Over time, however, the deficiencies in these standard nail mats became manifest. First and most importantly, the acupressure began to seem pretty weak as the body quickly adapts. Second, these mats are coloured cotton with a really cheap, flaky foam padding core, and this got dirty and smelly from perspiration, and washing them became a chore (removing the mattress pad, hanging to dry, re-inserting the pad etc.) Third, the quality was pretty third-world so they didn’t last. Fourth, they are bulky and impossible to carry on trips. Most importantly for the insomnia issue, I wouldn’t use them in my bed unless freshly cleaned, and therefore had to get up off the floor to go back to my bed.
I loved the product and the acupressure benefits however and wanted to find a better way forward. I thought that the mat would work much better if it were made of yoga mat material so that it could be rolled and carried in a cylinder bag over the shoulder or in an overnight bag for travel. I also thought the foam mattress padding was a bit of a joke, as the whole point of the mat was to get a serious acupressure session! Additionally, I wanted to use it in my bed most nights, and contour it to my neck, shoulders, back and pillow. Finally, I wanted a material that didn’t absorb perspiration and could be easily cleaned and dried without damage to the spikes and in a very short period of time.
My partner and I worked with various suppliers and finally found what we consider to be a next generation, superior re-design of the standard acupressure mat. The major difference is that it is constructed using thermoplastic elastomer (TPE), an environmentally-friendly yoga-mat-like substance, and the spikes are embedded directly into the TPE without glue so that they rest directly on the surface under the mat, with no padding of any kind in between. That feature means the acupressure is much more intense.
Using this mat, one of the best ways I have found to release back and neck tension is to lie on the mat directly on a hard floor (stone or wood), with the mat on the sacrum and lower back, and the legs bent at the knees with the feet flat on the floor. It is incredibly intense – it still takes me over five minutes to relax fully onto the spikes using this mat on this type of floor – but the reward for the brief discomfort is a tension release that for me is equal to any deep tissue massage I have ever had. And much cheaper and always available too! Though I owe the return of my shoulder use to my brilliant physiotherapist, I firmly believe that this mat has been responsible for keeping my supraspinatus tendonitis, shoulder and back problems from returning for over a year now. Pain management aside, the mat therapy also makes me feel lighter, looser and generally more positive and happy, more able to deal with stressful situations without losing my cool and tensing up.
So finally a conclusion (I hope!) to my pain odyssey. I now use the mat about five nights a week as I go to bed. I also use essential oil of lavender on the pillow, which is very relaxing as well. I have had only one night in about 50 when I didn’t automatically fall asleep in about 5-10 minutes. After about an hour I wake up just enough to gently pull the mat out from under me and continue sleeping. I went to my masseuse last week as I still have a book of massages to use or lose from last year. She always used to say my neck and shoulders were “very bad, very hard – too stressed”. She touched my neck and exclaimed “very soft! What are you doing here?” Let’s hope it stays that way.