It’s been a little over a year since my injury first started. A long, gruelling, painful year that I would never take back for anything.
A little case history:
This all started subtly… not even as pain. It felt like a tight muscle. I would keep going, though, hit it with mobility work to no avail (even though it never helped). Usually once I warmed up I would be good enough to go though. Sounds harmless, right?
Days would pass and nothing improved. In fact, it’s state was declining so fractionally that the “tight glute” eventually turned into a “tight hamstring”. I started modifying workouts to avoid putting my suspect leg on tension. Throughout the day I would be feeling okay, but as soon as I got out of bed the next day, it would be back. Groundhog’s Day. Everyday a tiny bit worse. Still, I continued on. I’m an athletic trainer, of course I had some differential diagnoses in my head about the truth but I did not want to believe I could have a back injury. Modified workouts turned into modified daily activities.
Finally one day it all came crashing down. I tried getting out of bed and as soon as I put
weight on my left leg, I fell. My muscle’s seized in excruciating pain, and I fell. It felt like I was paralyzed and being tased at the same time. I had never been tased, but that is what I imagined. I finally got an MRI and got a copy of the scans so I could look at them right away. I had herniated my Lumbar L5-S1 disc to the point of extrusion (contents of the disc material seep into the spinal column). The pressure and inflammation on the sciatic nerve was affecting the muscles it innervates. From this point on I settled in knowing I would be out for a very long time. Perhaps need surgery? I never thought I would be able to lift weights or do anything I love again.
At first my steps were small albeit important. I had change the details of how I moved through out the day. I slept on the floor every night, flat on my back. Not only is sleeping on the floor an easy way to mobilize, but it keeps your spine and hips aligned. This actually became very comfortable. My “resting” position was with my back on the floor, my feet propped up and my hips and knees at 90 degrees. This put some gentle traction on my spine and felt very nice. Driving was the ONLY time I would sit (it still is), and I keep the backrest down, with a rolled up towel behind me so I have to sit up tall. This prevents me from sinking into a poor slouching position which irritates my symptoms.
Of course I did my fair share of moping. Hard to avoid that. I let this thing define me. Whenever I would see someone or meet someone new it was as if I would say “Hi, I’m Sam. I hurt my back so don’t touch me, or ask me to sit, or judge me when I move like a cement block, and definitely, definitely don’t ask me if I’m okay.”
I couldn’t will myself to do anything. If I couldn’t lift weights or do anything fun, what was the point, right? One day my coach stopped me told me I needed to seriously get my shit together. And if you knew my coach, it was said with enough firmness to scare the shit out of you, but get you moving anyway. That was a turning point.
I starting hitting mobility as much as I could, until I started to notice a change. Then it was small tasks I could handle pain free like rolling on the floor and working on my breathing. Then it was balancing on one leg, ball tossing, and addressing really basic movement patterns. Touching my toes, lunging, walking, walking backwards and sideways, carrying a light kettlebell. I put in work everyday, even if it was a little bit here and there, it adds up.
One thing I do know for certain, is that I started feeling 10 times better once I began moving. On days I sat still, I hurt. To this day I still work on the basics, and am humbled by them everyday. I can’t yet say that I am 100% symptom free. I might not ever be able to say that. But I can say that I am way stronger and move much better than my pre-injury self. This experience taught me the importance of movement… It’s much more comfortable to be able to squat without “warming up” for thirty minutes, touching my toes feels natural, and cheating range of motion because I don’t have it is a damn good indication to get it. That’s my goal. I now know so much more about human movement. I learned how powerful it can be to get to the root of things to create change, rather than masking problems and poor habits and riding out the storm. I learned how hard work, focus, and lifestyle changes can go a very long way in proving that “I will never _______ again.” is such a lie.
Fix dysfunction, teach your body and your brain to work as a unit, and never ever stop practicing.
L E S S O N S L E A R N E D
- Be patient: Chances are, if it’s a chronic injury, it took a very long time to happen… It’s probably not going away overnight. Mobility work is also a long and gruelling process, and it’s work. To make permanent changes, stick with it… it’s worth it.
- Change your Lifestyle: Include more movement into your day (subtract conveniences)… challenge yourself to remodel habits that are getting in your way. This is a game changer.
- Let it be a lesson: But don’t let it define you. Once an injury happens, the ball is now in your court. Learn why it happened and address those reasons so that your body is prepared for whatever you and life are asking it to do.
- The Basics: No matter who you are, fundamentals are what counts. Sure, you can snatch 120 pounds, but can you balance on one leg with your eyes closed? You can kip 100 pull-ups, but can you actively hang on a rack with one arm? Your foundation is what allows you to get to the big stuff.
- Set-backs are okay: If it hurts, don’t do it… but…if you push it too far, it’s not the end of the world. Now you know what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to be further addressed.
- Breathing: This is huge. Not only does injury stress you out, but pain can change your breathing mechanics, similar to how an ankle sprain creates a limp. Learn how to let your nervous system feel safe and keep your diaphragm working well.
- Quality First: Take your time. Think twice before flying out of the gate at the first sight of freedom (this was one of the hardest things for me if it wasn’t for my coach. I had a few set-backs along the way). Until you can control yourself, practice quality over quantity.
- Have support: If you need help, ask for it and accept it. Period.
- Don’t Compartmentalize Your Injury: If you hurt your back (knee, shoulder, etc), don’t just address that part. Your body works as a whole system. Chances are if your knee hurts, the reason it hurts is coming from a host of other issues. If you experience pain somewhere, evaluate how you’re moving or find a specialist that can look at your movement as a whole, not just by its diagnosis. Once I started looking at my ACL-deficiency and poor shoulder mobility and addressing those links as well, my symptoms improved dramatically.
- Train the position that broke you: That’s your weak link. Pay attention to it and take ownership over it. If you ignore it because you “can’t do it” or your “body wasn’t built for that”, chances are, it’s going to break you… again.
- Accept and believe that you can be pain free and fully functioning: It’s going to take a lot of work, and dedication. Comfort and your quality of life improve so much when you can move, not the other way around. It’s not so much about bad movement or bad positions, it’s about how much your body is prepared to handle those situations, especially under speed and load. Rebuilding your body to move naturally is entirely possible. With some effort you can teach the body and brain to work together. Once you’ve mastered that, you will become injury-proof.
- Don’t be a hero: The final lesson. Listen to your body. Period. There isn’t such thing as just a “tweak”. It is a warning sign about your movement; there is always a reason behind it. Taking a couple days or a couple of weeks off to do some corrective and mobility work is a much better option than taking a year + to put the broken pieces back together again.