Young man wearing white t-shirt sitting indoor on the bed feeling sudden ache in his back, suffering from pain, symptom of stone in kidney. Healthcare and treatment concept

It doesn’t matter how rich you are — money cannot stop chronic back pain. Although it can alleviate the symptoms somewhat, my recent experiences of private health insurance, travelling abroad and trying to work have been a test of endurance.

Putting on a pair of socks has never been so tricky. A few years ago, I broke my shoulder and developed a one-handed technique for this daily manoeuvre. Even that doesn’t work if your back is out. I have to hold the entry part of the sock open, from the inside, putting my hand in, clenched fist and opening up like an adult does with a three-year-old to mimic a fierce monster.

Then, I rock gently back and forth as if I have totally lost the plot, while trying to hook the sock over my big toe. That allows me to pull it on and yank it up my leg. Victory is mine — usually at the fourth attempt.

Gently lowering my now socked foot, I have to start the process all over again for the other one while knowing that any slight deviation beyond the current limit of movement and — wham! — the shooting, stabbing pains will return. What usually takes 30 seconds takes 20 minutes. I should rename this column “old people’s problems” as I now understand the attraction of slip-on shoes, push-along shopping trolleys and a bath with a door in it.

For three weeks, I have been unable to walk properly, pick things up, sit on a sofa, work at a desk for any length of time, navigate public transport or, without an immense amount of determination, put my shoes and socks on. It has been a total nightmare. My back has been well and truly done in.

Safe to say, I am not my usual self. When they see my slow shuffling walk, friends and colleagues offer two responses. First, they’ll suck air through teeth and screw up their face as if they’ve just opened a putrid refuse bin. Then comes the verbal part: “I know exactly who you should see to get that fixed.” Everyone, it seems, has a back person.

It’s not as if I haven’t already tried to do something about it. Now, though, the pain is worse than anything I have previously experienced. A stabbing, violent sensation that is painful with a capital P.

How did it all start? Just over three weeks ago, I went on a magnificent driving trip. Out came my Aston Martin, on a test drive ahead of a long road trip to Croatia scheduled for the autumn — before we leave the EU.

The Aston is in great shape. He did smell of petrol for a while on our meanderings through the north Norfolk lanes and villages. I was very concerned. The remedy to that worrying whiff? Remember to put the petrol cap back in when you fill up.

We all made it safely there and back — I felt a twinge, but thought nothing of it — and celebrated the good weather with a party at a friend’s beach hut. We may have got through a few bottles of pink fizz and had a mega barbecue. All was well. It was only at the recovery breakfast the next day, while sitting on a low folding chair, that I felt the first proper inkling of an ache. Surely it couldn’t be a return of a back problem that had put me out for a week three years ago?

I was hardly able to get into my car to drive back to London and the usual five minute walk from the garage took 20. This was serious. I am well aware that the NHS exists. However, if I am ill or have an issue, I want help now, not in six months.

For the princely annual sum of £2,646.40 I have full cover with Axa PPP which includes 10 physio sessions. Yet availing myself of these was surprisingly difficult. It took three attempts for Axa to recognise that my usual provider of such care is accredited. I had to wait an awfully long time to get through their processes, as well as have a triage call to ensure I wasn’t making it all up. After four days of agony, I made it into the clinic — and discovered I had slipped a disc.

Somehow, I managed to get on with daily life, minus the dog walking. While you can ask passers-by to assist with most things, bending down with a bag to pick up after your pooch is not one of them.

Then came the holiday. I didn’t even bother checking to see if my travel insurance would cover the costs of cancellation — because I wasn’t going to cancel! I can thoroughly recommend travelling from London City Airport. The distance from check-in to plane is short, and its amenable staff are able and willing to pick up bags and assist.

The return to Gatwick wasn’t so pleasurable. For the first time, I have real sympathy with older people. The place hasn’t been designed for anyone with mobility issues. Changes in levels, escalators, narrow corridors with too many people in, not enough seating, loos that are too small and signage that sends you to one place to find out which baggage carousel they may send your bags to — only to send you back down to the other end of the baggage hall to retrieve it.

In another age, I would simply have hired a valet to put my socks and shoes on in the morning. I could still afford to do so. But I am more tempted by the £36.99 price tag on the ingenious “sock slider” I have discovered online. Will it work? Who knows. But in desperate times, it has to be worth a try.

Forget the B-words in the headlines, Boris and Brexit. If you put your back out, everything changes. I am about halfway through getting this fixed and have learnt a few important lessons. Read the small print on your health insurance. Know who to see when you have a problem. And if I ever meet you, bent over double with chronic back pain, I’ll grimace at you because I know precisely how painful it is.

James Max is a property expert and radio presenter. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax. If you have a problem for James, contact him at

Get alerts on Personal Finance Advice & Comment when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article