8 Lessons I Learned From Chronic Back Pain

I was in chronic pain for an entire year, well at least 300 out of the 365 days of this past year. I figure I had one decent day a week. I was constantly told, “You are too young to have back pain.” In my head I was always thinking, ok well I do. Pain is pain and it’s all relative to everyone and every situation. It has taken about a year to meet my goal of feeling 80% better, %80 of the time but I will tell you I have gained some serious perspective.

Lesson #1 – Eventually Your Body Will Catch Up With You If You Don’t Take Care of It.

Since elementary school I have been diagnosed with Scoloiosis, a lateral curvature of the spine. Growing up it never really bothered me and no doctor ever told me it was severe enough to wear a brace. I made it college volleyball just fine, through heavy olympic lifting, plyometrics, and constant jumping and reactive movements on the court. By age 27, still keeping fairly intense workouts, I noticed that a few times a year I would have severe pain that targeted multiple spots on my back as my spine curves in multiple places. I would get a referral for physical therapy, go for a few sessions and recover just fine. However, just two weeks after my 30th birthday last April, my back flared up again, but this time it did not go away.

My Kettlebell guru (as I like to call him), Dr. Mark Cheng, stated “Movement it like money.” You can max out everything on your credit card right now, but eventually it will catch up with you if you do not address it. Same things goes with your body (and mind, see Lesson #2). If you are moving incorrectly on a consistent basis, you may not notice it immediately but sure enough, it will catch up with you.

Lesson #2 – Emotional Pain And Stress Will Manifest Into Physical Pain, No Joke!

Being under a great deal of emotional stress at the time, I am sure some of it manifested its way into my back, and with the combination of my pre-existing Scoliosis. Doctors, tests, and a collection of medication did not help. My X-rays and MRI’s showed the curves in my spine, along with a minimal bugled disc in my lumbar and cervical spine. The physical abnormality was there but the chronic stress definitely assisted the chronic pain. Getting my mind right was one of the biggest challenges to getting back to a pain free way of living. Some days I could keep perspective and somedays it was difficult.

During this past year I have done a great deal of reading, writing and tried to implement a more practical and positive way of thinking into my life, and if you are dealing with any physical or emotional pain, it can be tough. Remember you are a constant work in progress. One day at a time. One hour at a time, if a day seems too overwhelming.

Lesson #3 Most Doctors Will Prescribe Medication First,

It’s Their Job

I visited different physical therapists, sports medicine doctors and pain management doctors, all who prescribed medication after medication. I had 9 prescriptions in my hand for pain and anxiety. NINE! I had different muscle relaxors, different anti-inflammatory pills, different anxiety meds and you know what? None of them were helping. In fact, I still have the stash because they were worthless to me. I was struggling to make it through a day at work and was miserable. My last attempt with a doctor left me leaving the office in tears. Poor guy, all he did was suggest another pain medication.

I know all these doctors were just doing their job, but masking the pain will only get you so far, and I knew that.

Lesson #4 – You Must Listen To Your Body

You know I am a fitness loving kind of girl and thrive on movement, so not being able to workout like I use to was really hard on me. I got to a point where I had to admit my workouts were not working for me. Even through the pain, I was trying to workout, being the fitness fanatic I am, stressing about my inadequate workouts and putting so much pressure on myself. I finally had to let go of trying to control my body to be a certain way when it wasn’t healthy. I had put so much emphasis on the “fitness” aspect of working out, that I ignored the “health” aspect. I needed to change what I was doing. And I did. I stopped CrossFit, I stopped running, I stopped hiking, I stopped weight lifting and resorted to yoga and walking my dog. I was at my worst when I could not step up onto a curb without extreme pain. I took a step back and realized I needed a new approach.

Focus on what you CAN do, not what you cannot do.

Lesson #5  Be Relentless With Your Pursuit of Improvement And It Is Ok To Be Mad

The turning point neared the middle of August when I finally turned to a highly recommended physical therapist. He was the first to show interest, amazement and concern, that my spine is indeed very curvy and no wonder I am in so much pain. My frustration was more than obvious. “You should not be frustrated” he said. “You should be PISSED! Your spine is shaped like an S.” And then BOOM, he went to work, designing a series of corrective exercises and stretches that I would do at therapy and at home. His goal for me was to be 80% better, 80% of the time. I attended weekly sessions in pain, and went through periods of hopelessness, but I was relentless in my physical therapy exercises and stretching. After 5 months I could finally see the light, small improvements.

Lesson #6 Find A Solution and Implement It

My PT pretty much told me that this was something I was going to have to deal with for life and learn ways to keep it under control. Through thousands of repetition I focused on core strength and stability, spinal mobility and upper body strength (scapular stability). I slowly, over the course of a year been able to add exercises back into my routine and return to my normal workouts. However I now add a lengthy and consistent core, mobility and stretching aspect to my routine. I do not run anymore and if I do high intensity workouts, I slow them down and focus on form.

Lesson #7 No One Cares About Your Health As Much As You Do

I was relentless in my pursuit to address my pain. I made call after call, appointment after appointment and initiated follow up after follow up and implemented exercise after exercise to improve my back. There are so many times it would have been easy not to take an extra step to get it under control but I persisted. I had a great support system but no one could do the work for me.

Lesson #8 There is Always Something To Be Grateful For

The reality is the pain was present. It was not going away and I was doing everything I could possibly be doing to assist in that. Some moments would be miserable but I was able to see the light and do a great deal of self reflection. When I look back on this year I recognize it was a painful year but also a year of growing and learning.

I can always find the lesson in the struggle.

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