I’ll be honest, you’re not going to learn any training techniques or fitness tips in this article. I’m going to get a little personal. This blog is mainly about my recent surgery, hopefully to be used as a guide for those who may be living in pain as well.
Let’s start from the top, from the very first time I “tweaked” my back. I was a senior in high school. I landed funny coming down from a layup in basketball practice, felt a slight shift in my back that was tender for weeks. I told no one about it. I didn’t think it was a big deal, plus I just wanted to play ball. So, I let it ride and it eventually got better. Could that have been the beginning of my back pain? Maybe. Who knows.
Fast forward a few years. I’m a student at Ball State University. I live in Muncie, IN but have an internship in Indianapolis. That’s a 2-hour round trip commute. I was spending a lot of time in my car up and down interstate 69. I started to notice that my leg would start to “fall asleep” every time I was on that drive to or from Muncie.
A little more mature than my high school self, I went to the doctor. I got an MRI and X-RAY done and the doctor said I just had some arthritis or some bullshit like that. I don’t even remember, to be honest. But I kept lifting. I kept playing ball. I kept partying, damaging my body in every way imaginable. Haha, college! So, could that have been the beginning of my back pain? Maybe. Who knows.
Fast forward a few more years. It’s 2014 and I’m a professional fitness trainer, living my dream! A lot of time, effort and sacrifice went into me making my dreams come true. I’ve had a few back flare-ups over the years but I am currently in the best shape of my life. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. Feeling great.
Catherine and I took our new puppy, Penny, to her weekly puppy training class. Penny was by far the worst in the class, but that’s why we love her. One day in class, I bent down to give her a treat and BOOM. I crumbled like lightning struck me. I still have no idea what happened or what triggered it but this was the worst back pain I’ve ever experienced.
And this time it didn’t go away.
I went and got imaging done. Herniated disc at the L4-5 and L5-S1 levels. But so what? What does that even mean? And how did me giving Penny that treat trigger such a serious sounding injury?
I’m guessing 80% of people have some sort of disc degeneration or herniation and most aren’t showing symptoms. It’s actually quite common. Maybe I just awkwardly bent down and that’s what caused me to start to display symptoms of an injury that I’ve had for years? Over the years I’ve probably developed unhealthy compensations and patterns of movement that lead to this.
Whatever the case may be, this time was very serious and the pain was punishing. This started my experiments with healing myself in non-surgical ways.
First, I tried physical therapy. I was working with a really cool PT who “got it.” She used to work with the Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Fire, so she understood how bad it sucked for me to not lift and live in this pain. I did a lot of sessions with her and then graduated to doing things in my own. I never got back to 100% though.
While I was going through this first phase of healing, I was taking anti-inflammatory and prescription steroids from the doctor. They do a great job masking the pain but they don’t correct the root cause of the pain. I really dislike taking those things. Unless it’s absolutely mandatory, I try not to put those types substances in my body anymore.
Next, I tried to mix in chiropractic methods with my PT homework. I went and saw a guy. We didn’t mesh well. I moved on after a few sessions and just stuck with my PT.
Of course, I was still pretty young and dumb, so I continued to push my body to the limits physically. And I was making myself worse. I know this now. I didn’t see it back then, but we learn lessons in life from our mistakes. And this whole process has made me a much better coach and trainer because I can speak from experience.
My next effort was a spinal injection. Actually, in total I got 3 of them in 2015. All different drugs, all different injection locations. None of them worked. Man, those things are pricey!
After that, started trying all these new-age protocols like cryotherapy, hot tubs, cold tubs, hyperbaric oxygen chambers and infrared saunas. I don’t believe in cryo or any ice-related healing, but I did love the oxygen chamber. None of it fixed my back but it helped with the pain. At that point, that was a win for me. Did I mention we had a newborn? I’m running out of time and money to try new things!
Then I met a really cool chiropractor who changed my life. I’m not using names in this but he knows who he is. I started training him and he started working on my back. The way he educated me and mentored me, not only about my back but as a man, was special. At this point, I knew my back was – excuse my language – fucked, but the work he did on my back made it manageable to live with.
We did adjustments, laser therapy, decompression, etc. and it all helped me function through the day. It bought me time. I was still trying so hard to fix myself with the original PT stuff, plus a ton of other at-home remedies. I bought like every Kelly Starrett book and product. That guy is amazing.
I was in a decent place early 2016. Probably close to 80% but still in pain daily.
Next, I tried some random acupuncture and a ton of different massage therapies. Acupuncture was, by far, the most underwhelming tactic along this journey. Some old dude stuck needles in my back, left the room, came back in 15 minutes and acted like he just healed me. I felt worse than I did when I came in because the position he had me lay down in. Not a good experience.
At this point, I had a decent recipe. I had my chiropractor and a mixture of self-help and PT strategies that I was using to fuel me through the day.
This was a great time for me because I was finding new ways to train around pain. I found new ways to strengthen myself without causing more pain, which ultimately made me a much better coach. I was training hard, for my circumstances. Things were popping off in my career as well.
I never felt the need to make my personal problems the heart of the content I was producing online. I was in pain every single day, you guys would have been sick of me after a week. I’m sure you’re already sick of hearing about it in this article. After all, it’s back pain. There are far worse things that can happen to me. I know people facing adversity that makes my severe back pain look like a vacation. I’m grateful to have an overall uncomplicated life. I talked about it when it made sense, but tried to be helpful and for-the-consumer in my delivery of content.
Anyway, something happened one day that triggered a new and more intense pain than ever before. I don’t even recall what I was doing but it was obviously too much for me to handle. I worked so hard to get ahead of the pain but just set myself back years of hard work – and money.
This time, I knew who I needed to see. I went to one of the smartest humans I’ve ever met and basically begged for him to fix me. I don’t know why I didn’t go sooner.
This guy was an amazing physical therapist that had a very non-traditional approach. Everything we did revolved around my pelvis and my breathing. I learned more under his care in 8 weeks than every single textbook I’ve ever read on the subject. And remember, I’ve read literally every back health book or article on the face of the planet.
These new PT exercises superseded my old ones, and they worked much better. They flowed well with my training. They integrated well with my chiropractor’s efforts too. I couldn’t afford this PT, even with the generous friends & family discount he gave me. I opened up a credit card to continue seeing him because I felt the results and believed in the system. I’ll never be able to thank him enough for helping me out of a dark place mentally. Pain can really screw with your brain.
Anyway, I graduated his program. I wasn’t pain-free but I knew what I needed to do and passed all the criteria I needed to. The future looked bright. I still did some of those exercise he gave me up until the day of my surgery. It was at least temporary relief.
It had been almost 3 years since the really bad flare up that sparked all of this. I had learned a lot along the way and definitely changed my training to put myself in better situations. I was training super smart. Still lingering, nagging daily pain – but I could manage it. I dabbled in Arnica around this time, too. Arnica tablets. I ate them like candy. And pretty much bathed in Tiger Balm. I’m still trying to get a sponsorship out of that, Tiger Balm holler at me!
Then, I had another slip up. Again, I don’t know what caused it but it was a new sensation of pain that was different than ever before. At first, I thought I tore my hamstring. Turns out it was just that severe of shooting pain going down my left leg. This is when things got real.
I’ve always had the numbness and the dull pain but this was the first time I ever experienced the nerve damage associated with a herniated disc. I wouldn’t wish nerve pain on anyone. It’s debilitating, to be honest. The constant shooting pain down my leg was killer, and the PT exercises that always used to work only intensified the pain.
At this point, I got new images taken of my spine. MRI’s showed those same levels of herniation but WAY worse. In fact, it appeared that one of the discs that had slipped out of place actually ruptured and detached from the rest of the disc. Not good.
So I tried a few more methods. I got a selective nerve root block, which is another form of injection. I got that twice in 2 months. Not much relief.
Then I hooked up with a chiropractor that specializes in nerve pain and got some great relief methods. He gave me some stretches that would buy me like an hour of moderate pain, which was awesome compared to the severe pain I was normally in. From wake up to bed time, it was constant. Death, taxes and nerve pain.
As a last ditch effort, I tried one more pain specialist. She was also very unique and had a new approach to healing that was different than the others. I followed her protocol but could never get over the hump.
One thing that I want to stress is that throughout this whole process, I fully adhered to every single program I was ever put on. I did everything each person said to do, as often as they said to do it and for however long I could stand it. I tried a lot but I wasn’t a program-hopper.
That was around the time Mason was born. Two babies now. Running out of time and money that I already ran out of.
So shortly after Mason was born, my family and I made the decision to try the one method we had always swore off. Surgery. I was completely against it this entire process, as you can tell from the laundry list of things I’ve tried.
But it was time. It was the right decision for my family and I. I can truly say I did everything I could to avoid it. Once Catherine gave me the go-ahead, I was on board. She’s the real MVP.
I met with my surgeon. Scheduled the operation and I’m currently recovering from that surgery as we speak. I’m optimistic about it. I’ll have to wait until the pain related to the surgical procedure clears up to give a an honest review of the surgery results. Right now, everything hurts because I just got sliced and diced. But I feel confident that this will help. After all, they removed the problem – my free floating disc fragments just chilling on nerve roots.
I just wanted to write this to give a background on my journey. I wrote this in bed, heavily medicated, on my iPhone. It’s not great journalism. It’s just a rant that I wanted to go on because I feel that many people could benefit from this. Here are some random thoughts and takeaways.
Takeaways for people in pain:
Pain sucks. It can ruin your quality of life and cause you to be mentally unhealthy. My advice to you would be to seek professional help in every way imaginable. If you come to a time where surgery is the only option left, do what is best for you. Listen to your body, don’t listen to anyone who can’t feel what you’re feeling.
At first I felt like I was letting down the practitioners who tried to fix me and other fitness pros, like I was a fraud because I had to get surgery. But then the more I thought about it, those are the very people who understand the most that it was the right decision for me. And then I thought about it even more, who cares what anyone else thinks? It’s your life.
Takeaways for other trainers:
You are not a doctor, physical therapist, chiropractor or manual therapist. Unless you are. But you’re probably not. Don’t try to be. If you’re dealing with a client in pain, refer them out. You can’t fix everything personally.
Takeaways for chiropractors, physical therapists and doctors:
All of your methods work, until they don’t. You’re going to heal a lot of people. Sometimes people will slip through the cracks, unfortunately. This space is really where the magic happens though. If someone is going to get healed, it’s with these guys.
Everyone who I worked with over the years helped me. Just because I wasn’t pain free doesn’t mean they didn’t help. I was able to learn even more about the body and how it functions in-depth side by side with experts in their fields. Everyone did their part.
Because of this injury, I’ve been able to help others get stronger, pain-free, more mobile, faster, more powerful, leaner and more! Name a goal, I’ve helped a person get there.
My clients are all aware of my back pain, teasing me about how I sit on stability balls all day or use PVC pipe as a cane like nobody would notice. They know that my personal issue would never interfere with the effort that I put forth for them and the investment they make to see me.
Another positive: I was forced to create new innovative methods of training that helped me stay fit and practice what I preach during the roughest of times. How could I be a credible trainer if I didn’t even train myself? I had to find ways to make it happen.
Those methods introduced me to some cool ass coaches online who I now call mentors, friends and family. Those connections gave me a platform to display my coaching ideas and thoughts to a greater audience. Now I have people actually reading this very article other than my wife and my mom.
A lot of awesome things have happened in my life that are directly related to my back injury. At least, that’s the way I like to see things. I enjoy positive takeaways. While I hope to god that this surgery eliminates the pain, I can’t wait to see what the future holds. And I can honestly say, I know I’ll survive either way it goes.