Back pain: how to WISE UP!

Firstly I do apologise for the title, but I do want as many people to read this as possible as it is a subject very close to my heart. I needed something to catch people’s eye, even if it is at the risk of sounding like an inconsiderate ass…

I have an L4/L5, S1 disc protrusion with nerve impingement, I also Olympic lift four times a week and do advanced bodyweight training for fun. I have no pain.

Secondly, I am not a doctor, and do not make any claims to be a miracle worker or expert, but I have helped a great deal of people in the same position I was in: PETRIFIED OF MOVING. It didn’t just get better by stretching and strengthening. I have to say that “getting over it” was, mentally, one of the most challenging things I have ever done.

I was the master at keeping my spine neutral, I could explain how to brace until your eyeballs fell out.. I was a complete form nazi. I was already making a bit of a reputation for myself for helping people with injuries, after all, getting people pain free and moving well was pretty rewarding coaching-wise. I always sympathised with people with chronic lower back pain, I realigned my pelvis once and I thought it was the worst pain EVER! Two weeks of agony. Also had torn fascia one time too! That’ll harden you. So I had a fair idea of great stretches and exercises and what areas to foam roll to get people back to training well and kicking ass. But nothing, and I mean NOTHING can compare to the pain I felt one day that stayed with me for months.

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I can’t even say it felt like I had been shot, I would actually imagine being shot is a lot nicer than this.

I was more stressed out than I ever had been in my life: working two jobs, just about to have my first baby (her name is Roxy, she is absolutely beautiful) but I didn’t think I was ready to be a Dad!! I still find farts funny. I was so tense all the time. I didn’t care though, I could foam roll it out. Looking back now just about every warning sign was there, but I ignored them all. I needed my training, more than ever. I felt a bit of a twinge doing back squats, nothing out of the ordinary I thought, probably have to book in for a massage.

I’ll never forget that morning. I woke up and felt so stiff, I tried to rotate out of bed and could barely tense my abs without my back going into spasm. Finally making it to a seated position I tried to stand. My legs came from under me and I hit the floor screaming. I can’t even say it felt like I had been shot, I would actually imagine being shot is a lot nicer than this. It felt like the nerves in my left leg were being pulled out from the base of my spine, the pain was shooting up and down, up and down, burning, twinge after twinge, spasm after spasm, I would of been sick if I could breathe. I was biting down on the blanket as my wife was crying asking me what to do. I made an appointment with my physio – I knew that he could help me, but the stairs were going to be a problem.

I stood there in silence as he told me that no, he couldn’t help me. I felt like I was standing outside myself listening to someone else talking. I couldn’t understand why. He had fixed me so many times before, my shoulder, my knee, my back those other two times, what can be so bad now that he won’t even work on me? Knowing more now it is actually a testament to how professional he is. With the symptoms I had it is best not to tamper until getting a scan.

So, off to A&E I went, greeted by an unsympathetic doctor that just lifted my leg about 3 inches saying I had “good range of motion”. Normally I can put my palms flat on the floor with straight legs, but I couldn’t even look down without my back hurting, let alone try bending. So a big box of painkillers it was. No answers, no exercises, no do this or don’t do that. Nothing.

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Lying flat wasn’t helping, the more I stayed still the more pain I was in. I decided to apply my own principles to myself, for thirty minutes every morning I woke up and preceded to do corrective exercises and activation drills, if I did this I could move a bit for the rest of the day, I could work. If I skipped it or decided to stay in bed for a bit longer, well, I’d spend the rest of the day high on painkillers. Months went by and I was being told I would never lift weights again and I’ll always have a weak lower back and more. Phrases I would always avoid and knew they were talking nonsense, but the pain was still there and I couldn’t help but start to let their negative words creep in. I was in so much pain one morning I wished I was dead.

What I was doing wasn’t working for me any more. I had to start researching into other methods, I refused to believe I couldn’t be helped. I started reading about car crash victims and extreme case studies on pain triggers and injuries. Turns out, the top experts willingly admit we have no idea how we are wired. I started changing the routine I had in the morning, taking bits out, adding bits in, soon I was able to get myself moving in the morning a lot faster, AND my flexibility was starting to actually improve. After a few weeks, I actually had no pain at all, I couldn’t believe it, the first morning being able to wake up and just get out of bed made me cry. I still wasn’t happy though, although I had no pain, I still felt weak, I hated that feeling.

I spend my life telling people not to be afraid and help them get stronger – where the fuck was someone to do it for me!?

If you’re told something enough times you start to believe it. I was shit scared to go back near weights again. Being constantly told by professionals and doctors about how my life had to change now, and that I’d always just have to live with it was burned deep into the back of my mind. I spend my life telling people not to be afraid and help them get stronger – where the fuck was someone to do it for me!?

A pain trigger is just that – something which “triggers pain”. If there is a movement your body deems as unsafe, the pain trigger will be activated to hurt you in order to protect you. Because people that have had back injuries are subjected to so much pain, these triggers can become crazy strong, even after an injury is healed the trigger can remain. In a way, this means that the pain is “in your head” (but obviously there are exceptions).

The problem then arises when you avoid these triggers, then they get stronger. All the time you are assuming you are getting weaker. What I have started doing is finding the trigger, and working WITH it. Having a “conversation” with your body may seem ridiculous, but if you notice someone that is hurt you tell them that it’s going to be ok and you comfort them – your back is no different. Don’t forget that when you go through a traumatic experience, your body goes through it too.

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Picking exercises that are similar to positions which cause pain, but that you can work with will start to send positive signals through your body, telling your triggers to back off a bit. With enough persistence I have found that you can completely rewrite that trigger and get back to moving again without fear, and also having an increased sense of proprioception.

It’s hard, I will not lie about that. You may have set backs and feel like you are getting worse at times, but if you really decide that you are not done then you owe it to yourself to try, and try anything. One tip I would give you is to not take pain killers, you want an accurate reading when you are doing things.

Learn how to breathe properly and don’t be scared of any movements, remind yourself it’s silly to be scared to do normal things: the more you convince your body that moving is safe, the more it will start to believe you. No one should have to live their life in pain. You should try everything you can before considering surgery or being on medication forever.

The week I got my MRI scan I deadlifted 200kg just for fun and I had not had any pain for months. It still showed the protrusions, and I am still waiting on being shown a single exercise to help me.

Don’t let people tell you what you will and won’t feel, be your own judge.

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