Ok, so this post has been one YEAR in the making. Yep, a whole year to get myself together to write this.
Every time I have sat down to write about how I recovered from back pain, I have stopped myself.
You see, when you have experienced agonising pain that has affected your job, lifestyle, mood (well, everything)… you never really feel like you’re cured/healed/recovered. There’s always this little part of your brain that tells you “pfff, you aren’t better. It will only take one bad movement and bam…that pain is back”.
You live in fear. Fear of that pain. Fear of that disability.
So I couldn’t bring myself to write about it for such a long time…because I felt that somehow the Universe would say “who the hell do you think you are?” and curse me with another acute episode. Yep, I know how crazy that sounds, but this is what happens to your brain when you have experienced significant pain. It re-wires itself – and not in a helpful way.
But yet here I am. So how did I get to this point? How did I get confidence in my body again? Why do I finally feel like I can write about it now?
I want to tell my story (and it is a long one!) so that perhaps it might help others who are experiencing something similar. Even as a physiotherapist, working with people in pain and knowing something about the science of pain and how the brain works…I still found it really challenging to experience it myself.
But I did get through it and here is my story…
The back story
I have been working as a physiotherapist for a fair few years now – mostly in private practice, treating back, neck and knee pain – so it is fair to say that the concept of back pain is not new to me. I had a few acute episodes of low back pain in my younger days (20s!) but never lasting for longer than a few days and usually requiring minimal treatment.
Fast forward a few years (and a couple of pregnancies and births later!) and I had my first episode of severe back pain. Given that my current job is teaching pre and postnatal exercise (it wasn’t back then), I can kind of shake my head at my stupidity in retrospect.
So, I was about 8 months postnatal…I had been doing some basic postnatal pilates and gentle gym work. We went on holiday to Colorado and I desperately wanted to go snowboarding. Never one to take things lightly, I went hard core – off piste, moguls, you name it.
I was so friggin excited to be boarding again – nothing was going to hold me back! Unfortunately my body didn’t react so well from this workout and I couldn’t move for about 3 days. Literally couldn’t walk (challenging looking after a little baby, but luckily I had lots of family with me at the time!).
Things settled with time, gentle exercise and movement…and I felt pretty normal again within a few weeks.
After we moved to Melbourne, I decided that I missed my old Taekwondo life and found an amazing school that enabled me to jump back into it (about 18 months after number 2!).
I found it challenging physically, as I had taken 11 years off martial arts and had had a couple of babies – my flexibility was poor and my core strength was…well, not great. Even though I taught pilates at a sports medicine clinic at the time, I found it hard to find time to do much for myself. I worked part-time, had two small children, no family nearby and a husband who worked away a lot. It was difficult to prioritise myself (something I hear from my clients all the time!).
But I LOVED TaeKwonDo – I loved the movement, the intensity, the people, the philosophy. I worked hard, I sweated, I burned and I smiled.
I somehow found myself competing in some tournaments. Even though I didn’t know the rules and perhaps lost a few points on penalties (you aren’t allowed to grab people’s legs and sweep them…I must have watched too much Karate Kid!), I managed to win the sparring in my first ever tournament! It was the Victorian championships and most of my competitors were at least 10-15 years younger than me (and much fitter), so I was stoked to come away with the gold … (plus some bruised ribs).
The Big One
As with many people with back pain, I had one episode that eclipsed all others. One that dropped me to the floor. One that stopped me sleeping, had me taking strong medication…one that made me cry.
In retrospect, of course I can see how all the pieces of the puzzle slotted together to create the perfect storm. We had just auctioned our house in Melbourne (HUGE amount of stress getting everything perfect for that) and we had purchased a house in Perth and were moving our life there. The Dockers had just lost the Grand Final of the AFL (ok, not so relevant but may have added to my mental state!).
I had made the Australian team for the World Championships in ITF TaeKwonDo! I had booked my flights to Rome and had chosen a club in Perth to train with. I had enrolled my daughter into her new school and started to settle into life here. Oh..and I decided to start a new business teaching pre and postnatal pilates.
Yeah…to say that it was a stressful six months is an understatement.
So one weekend I did a myofascial release half -day course. We foam rolled and stretched – my back went into positions that it hadn’t for a long time. It felt a bit sore, but wasn’t too bad.
I drove straight to a three-hour training session after that. We did heavy kicking on bags – I basically tried to kick a 100kg male from one end of the gym to the other. I felt sore, I stopped. That night my back felt pretty darn achy.
The next day I tried to ride my bike. As I went to push down on my pedal with my right leg, something went “clunk” and I couldn’t move. I was stuck straddling my bike by the side of the road, trying to yell at my husband to come and help. I literally couldn’t lift my leg over the cross bar.
I went home and cried. Took some anti-inflammatories, rested and did some gentle movement. I was devastated. I felt that Rome was out of the picture. I worried that I wasn’t going to be able to teach pilates in my new business. I was also doing a locum for a sports physio clinic – would I be able to work? How was I going to get the kids to and from school. I felt sick with the stress and the pain. My physio thought I had a stress fracture and wanted scans. I didn’t want scans as I knew that I would have degenerative changes (because pretty much everyone does!) and I thought they would impact negatively on my recovery. Long and short of it – I had scans, there was no fracture and of course there were degenerative changes.
I had treatment on my back over the next few months – I had manipulation, acupuncture, massage and craniosacral treatment. All helped a small amount. I felt better bit by bit and week by week…but it was slow going. Every day I would have a few episodes where I would move and an electric shock would shoot through me. It would take my breath away and kept me on edge. I pulled out of the World Champs…and cried some more.
I could sense that my anxiety about the pain was really ramping up my nervous system and I needed to do something to calm it down. So here’s what I did:
I started walking mindfully. Sounds weird I know, but I just put my headphones on and walked down to the river.I focused on my arm swing first – and I noticed it was completely asymmetrical. My right arm pretty much didn’t move! So I got my swagger on (as Robin Kerr – physio extraordinaire calls it!) and felt my thoracic spine start to move again.
I learnt to breathe again. Yes of course I was breathing …but I was so tense through my abdominals that my belly didn’t move! I learnt to relax my abs and get my lower ribs to expand. This style of breathing helped calm my mind and my body (and I’m sure I got better oxygenation as a result!)
I danced. I had a friend’s wedding during this time. I remember
going out to buy some flatter shoes as I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to manage heels! At the wedding I felt consumed by thoughts of my back. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to sit down. I couldn’t concentrate on the conversations around me. Then the music came on…
Once a started dancing, I felt things start to ease. The rhythmical movements soothed my nerves. The pelvic tilting and weight shifting eased my spine. The endorphins released by having such a great time with my friends and moving with the music calmed my soul.
I started dancing more at home with the kids. We put on funky tunes and just grooved away in our living room (yes, we still do!).
I got back into TaeKwonDo. This was a big challenge. I was really nervous about starting up again, but I have wonderful instructors at Platinum TaeKwonDo who supported me and encouraged me to come along and just do whatever I could. They knew that it was important for me to build my confidence again, but to also be surrounded by my friends in the club. Those who have experienced pain, know all too well how isolating it is to be removed from the social circles that are linked to physical activity.
So I started up again really slowly (it was many months after the “big one”) and realised that I was ok. Sure some days I ached afterwards, but I didn’t get crippling pain. Yes I couldn’t sprint or kick high, but that was ok. I was there. I was moving. I found ways to move that weren’t painful….and I did more of them.
One of the great things about martial arts, yoga, qi-gong and tai-chi are the sequences of movement. In TaeKwonDo we call them patterns. In Karate they are called katas. They can be almost meditative in nature, depending on speed and focus, and I certainly found them helpful in my recovery.
I challenged myself. When we were putting our new pool in, we had to move wheelbarrow loads of cement from the front to the back of the house (via a ramp that went down a few steps). My first thought was “I can’t do that, it will hurt”. I took a few minutes to think about it and realised that I was completely capable of the task and I gave it a crack. I was tired, but fine. I learnt so much about my body that day – I was NOT broken!
So we tried hiking. I just carried a smaller pack (poor hubby carried the big one!) and just did about 20km in 2 days. Sleeping on a hard surface was pretty uncomfortable and I woke up stiff and sore. But guess what? I was fine!
I went mountainbiking – well, no real mountains in Western Australia, so let’s just call it cross-country cycling! I was a bit nervous about the bumps and how it might jarr my spine. I reminded myself that if I tensed up, I was not going to be a good shock absorber, so I chilled out and had a brilliant time.
I started to lift. I really felt that if I wanted to continue doing TKD (and certainly if I wanted to get back into competing), then I needed to be a LOT stronger. I contacted an exercise physiologist (Tristan Hellings) and started doing weights at home. At first, I was kinda shitting myself (technical term) at the thought of deadlifting…especially off the floor. But I started with light weights and soon afterwards could easily pull 40kg off the floor. The knowledge of that achievement gave me great confidence. If I can lift 40kg easily off the floor, then I certainly can lift the laundry basket without too much difficulty!
I asked Tristan for a snowboarding program around 12 weeks out from a trip to Japan. Believe you me, I was focused on being in great condition for that trip! I worked hard in my home gym and managed to snowboard 10 days in our 14 day holiday (I still can’t believe it – really grateful that our kids loved the snow!). Again, my back was great. I had so much more strength through my whole body and I felt relaxed. It was amazing!!
I did a course with the amazing Antony Lo (Physio Detective) who further not only challenged my thinking, but taught me some strategies for how to use alignment, deep muscle activation and breath in lifting (#spreadtheload).
Do you notice a theme here?
Do you see that for every new thing I tried, I had to overcome my own fear and limiting beliefs? I had to try the movement and prove to myself that I wasn’t broken. With every new thing that I tried, my confidence in my body grew and grew.
So where am I at now?
Well, it’s now three years since the “big one” and I continue on. I do TaeKwonDo and I have my sights set on the World Cup in Queensland in 2018. My plan is to build up my muscle strength and power so that I can increase my kicking speed.
I’m keen to try CrossFit and have been working on my lifting technique in order to be able to do so safely.
I no longer live in constant fear of pain. I can play soccer in the backyard with my son without discomfort. If the kids want to go for a ride on their bikes around the river, I am happy to jump on mine without thinking twice.
We are planning a hike in New Zealand at the end of the year, plus another ski trip to Japan (I need to work my butt off this year to earn some money for these holidays haha!).
I have to continue to work on my breathing and relaxation techniques every day. I try and make sure that every week I do something for myself that is enjoyable, whether it is coffee with friends, reading my book outside or going for a walk.
And I use this experience to help my physiotherapy clients. I see women every week who have pain during pregnancy or the postnatal period and I can truly empathise with what they are going through. I help them manage their pain and find ways of moving comfortably. I have just started working in a personal training studio in Perth and I love seeing people achieve goals that they never believed were possible – whether it is just moving without pain or running a marathon.
I can’t say that I am never going to experience pain again. I probably will, because I am alive! But I no longer live in fear everyday, and I now feel that I have the tools to manage the pain if it does return.