THE TIMES – Feburary 11, 2006
Sarah Key’s method of stamping out pain is so successful that the Prince of Wales is a big fan. So is Ginny Dougary, after joining a week-long course that brought tears as well as laughter.
Sarah Key is at it again, in her white skirty-shorts, tanned bare legs and pearls, her trusty plastic spinal cord draped over one shoulder like an outlandish stole, urging her “babies“ (aka middle-aged patients) to: “Dance on your pain, rock ’n’ roll, bend like a willow, crouch like a bushwhacker, curl like a swastika, spread like a blow-fly, and suck that fluid into your discs . . . shhhhhhllleeeeeeeoooough.”
“The world of backs is full of bullshit” is another of the Australian physiotherapist’s pithy sayings but there are many more where that came from, as I discovered when I enrolled as a fully fledged back-sufferer for a week of the Sarah Key Method.
There were 11 of us on the course, of all shapes and sizes, varied professions and nationalities — one woman had flown in from the States — and we were all 40-plus, with the exception of one sporty whippersnapper who, despite being only in his early thirties, seemed to be the worst afflicted of the bunch.
Key worked exclusively in the NHS when she was living in London more than 30 years ago. She went private in 1976 and now travels between Sydney — where she has her own practice — and the Hale Clinic in London. She is best known for using her feet to dig deep into stubborn tissue and for treating the collective back problems of the Royal Family, in particular those of the Prince of Wales, who is one of her staunchest supporters and, indeed, is backing her attempt to extend her treatment farther through his Foundation of Integrated Health.
Key uses her feet because she can feel more with them than with her hands. It’s a technique that she hs been honing for 20 years, since she first learnt it in Switzerland. She has treated thousands of people in that time from all over the world and says her success rate with “simple lower-back pain is astonishingly high, though complex problems have to be viewed over the longer term”.
This time last year I wrote in Body&Soul about my first meeting with Key when I interviewed her at Tresanton, Olga Polizzi’s haven of a hotel in Cornwall. It was on the eve of Key’s first Back-in-a-Week course at Tresanton and there was only a handful of patients. I sat in on the first morning’s meeting and every story of a life half-lived because of debilitating pain was dismaying in its own way.
What struck me most forcibly was how much the back-sufferers had sacrificed to be there. These were not people who were even comfortably off: an unemployed car mechanic who lost his job because of his ongoing back problem, who was funding the week with his redundancy money; a young mother, unable to pick up her toddler, who was risking further credit card debt. There was only one person, a Nike executive, for whom the fee at Tresanton of £ 3,000-odd pounds would not have created considerable financial hardship.
But then over the long years of searching for a cure most of the sufferers had already spent that sort of sum on the endless, dispiriting round of cranial osteopaths, chiropractors, acupuncture, surgery, hypnotists and so on.
At that time, through brisk walking and daily exercises, I considered that my own bad back was pretty well sorted. But then Sarah gave me a couple of sessions with her feet and, on the second one, something unexpected happened. As I sat in one of the rather uncomfortable chairs, I felt an extraordinary whoosh of relief. My posture was suddenly radically different. Instead of the pinched sensation I must have learnt to live with, I was sitting in a way that felt completely new — but with a dim memory of it being familiar from a long, younger time ago — undistorted, relaxed, and at ease.
In the weeks that followed that mini-revelation, I felt more supple and spring-out-of- bedish than I had for years. But to maintain that new sensation of lightness, it was up to me to take charge. She gave me a “back block”, a blue Perspex oblong brick about a foot long, over which one is supposed to lie — stretching out the spine, sucking fluid into those all-important discs dried up from the hours of sitting hunched over a computer — twice a day, for the rest of one’s life. And guess what? I didn’t do it.
Therein lies the strength and the weakness of the Sarah Key Method. Her amazing foot action is only one aspect of her method. There is the aforementioned back block, which is already used in some forms of yoga but which she has modified for her own treatment. There is also Key’s approach, which marks her apart from others in her profession.
She is passionate about demystifying what is wrong with you, encouraging each back sufferer to understand his or her specific problems through straightforward diagrams and using vivid, unobfuscating language. She overturns all the usual shibboleths of the back profession and this sometimes feels scarily counter-intuitive: we are urged to bend down whenever possible; told that it is madness, indeed, to think that we are protecting our backs by avoiding using them; and that it’s actually good for us to lift heavy things, and so on.
Far from feeling alternative (where you tend to be urged to listen to your body), this feels more bracingly Mary Poppins-esque: our backs are naughty, stubborn children who need a good talking to and, when properly handled — with a daily regimen of back block and a spoonful of appeasing exercises to help the medicine go down — they will amaze us with how well behaved they can be. In the real world, however, the key question is whether you are the kind of person who is self-disciplined enough to maintain the eternal vigilance necessary to prevent your back, once it is on the mend, from going again.
When I returned to Trensanton as a particpipant in the Back-in-a-Week course, a fair number of my fellow sufferers were Times readers who had read the original piece in Body&Soul. Before, I had been a detached observer; now I had my own anxieties about feeling raw and vulnerable. The previous month, my only remaining adult relative — my older sister, Anne — had died unexpectedly, at the age of 59.
Almost as soon as I heard the awful news, my back went into spasm. The last occasion I had felt such excruciating pain was when my mother was dying and it seemed uncannily similar, almost as though the body itself had an emotional memory.
So there were tears that week but also a lot of laughter. It was instructive and helpful to hear about other people’s setbacks and to be reminded that one was far from alone in experiencing the frustrations of trying to cope with life when every movement causes pain.
I recalled how I had sat on the floor for an hour and a half for a recent interview with Bob Geldof because there were no suitable chairs. A chief executive talked about how she would sometimes have to lie down in meetings, which may have been awkward but would have been more so if she weren’t the boss.
Each day started at 8am with a slide-show lecture. The room was covered with mattresses, pillows and blankets and we were encouraged to lie, sit, stretch and stand whenever we felt uncomfortable. There were initial individual consultations, with Key scribbling over our backs with a marker pen to pinpoint the problem areas, which were then photographed.
Towards the end of the week, these images were flashed on to a screen as we listened to the diagnosis of one another’s cases and Key’s suggested remedies. The exercises that would strengthen one person’s back, for instance, would be disastrous for someone else. By day three, what with Key dancing on our pain with her feet and us rocking and rolling on our mats, most of us were feeling sore and, in some cases, spectacularly bad-tempered; the atmosphere of cheerful bonhomie replaced by monosyllabic grunts. This, we were told, was entirely to be expected since the work is so intensive.
This time round my back seemed more resistant to Key’s earthy foot action, although I was certainly aware of the different, almost musical notes of “sweet pain” when her heel hit the trouble zone and the dull drone from the surrounding areas.
One of our group was actually sobbing on her mat during an exercise session, although it was unclear whether this was emotional or because the movements were too hard for her. Another member put her back out, mid-stretch, and Key had to whack it in with some force. So although there were many jolly snapshots from the week — I particularly liked the moment when the magazine editor, something of a style icon, said the only way she could be persuaded to wear a pillow strapped to her back was if Prada designed the cover — there were constant reminders that back pain really is no laughing matter.
If anyone had come expecting instant results, they would, we were warned, be disappointed. On the penultimate day, Carmel Neale, who had attended one of the earlier Tresanton courses, addressed our group. For seven years she had felt like a “mouse on a wheel” trying everything from surgery to Pilates in her search for a cure, but with no success.
In the months after being released from Key’s care, progress was literally painfully slow, but she persevered with the daily exercises and the back block and now, a year later, her life was transformed; her only medication a glass or two of sauvignon blanc and occasional anti-inflammatories. She had been on hiking holidays and sailing trips, had moved house, and her back had coped throughout.
As Key said: “You must remember that you are all on a journey. You’ll be able to poke your head out but then you’ll probably need to retreat back into your shell.” Two months on, there are mixed reports from our group. The whippersnapper is on three-months’ sick leave from work at Key’s behest, and a couple of the women say that they feel in worse shape than they did before.
The magazine editor is making terrific progress, however, and I’m fine (my back pain, as I believed, was tied up with the shock of bereavement). Almost everyone speaks highly of Key: she has given them hope; they feel that she really cares and takes them seriously; and for the first time they have a diagnosis that makes sense.
The main obstacle to recovery, it must be said, is that although Key is determined to teach her method to more physiotherapists — her hope is that it will be taken up by the NHS to enable those who can least afford it to benefit — she, herself, cannot be cloned and for most of the year she could hardly be farther away.
Two initiatives are needed to discern whether the Sarah Key Method could and should be made more widely available: thorough ongoing research into why her approach seems to work in many cases where all else has failed and the facility for more physiotherapists to be given the opportunity to observe and be trained by her. Both of these will be taking place soon under the auspices of Prince Charles, who wrote the foreword to her Back Sufferer’s Bible (Vermilion, £9.99). “Visualising what is happening inside the back makes it more logical and easy to see why Sarah Key’s exercises really do work,” he wrote. “After all, I should know. As one of her guinea- pigs over the years I can vouch for their effectiveness, if not claim some credit for honing the final product.”
Since HRH has been seeing Key for years, he as much as any back-sufferer would agree that there is one certainty with a problem back: it is sure to be be a long and chequered road ahead. For, as Sarah Key says, and who better to say it: “Backs are buggers.”