So I destroyed one of my intervertebral discs in my lumbar spine a few years ago, and it was followed by a year of pain, endless treatments, frustration, de-training, and overall unhappiness. I’ve been wondering for a while if I should write a blog describing the injury and the path it led me down. I’m sure some people may find the story interesting, or others with a similar injury might find solace in seeing that they aren’t alone. I know that while I was injured I was desperately reading through articles, blogs, forums, and spinal research books to not only search for information that might help my condition but to also read others’ stories and see what they’ve gone through. But for a while I didn’t want to write it because I’ve come to HATE the fact that this injury took away so much from me. I HATED the fact that I still owe money to some medical practices for the treatments I went through. And I HATED the fact that for the better part of a year the injury became the focal point of my life. I just wanted to leave it in the past and move on.
But...I figure it’s time to stop being a drama queen and give you guys a “play-by-play” of what happened.
A Long, Long Time Ago...
I’ve always been an active kid, partaking in activities like skateboarding, snowboarding, fishing (is that active?), pick-up basketball and football, dirt-jumping on bikes, and all kinds of stuff that are fun and dangerous. In high school I played lacrosse as my primary sport, but also dabbled in various track and field events. After high school I played club lacrosse at VCU before transferring to GMU but also got hooked into grappling sports. I started competing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and submission grappling fairly regularly. I loved it! It definitely made me regret not wrestling in high school. This was also around the same time that I started lifting a little more seriously.
Life was good! I was squatting, deadlifting, wrestling, grappling, and having a lot of fun. In terms of training I admit I did some stupid stuff. I never cared about “overtraining”, soft tissue quality, mobility, or pre-hab. I just wanted to get stronger and lift more weight. I always looked at “ab work" as a waste of time and effort.
I distinctly remember one day grappling with my training partners one and getting caught in a shoulder lock called a “kimura”, which basically forces your shoulder into deep internal rotation. It happened so quickly that I couldn’t tap in time and heard (and felt) a loud “POP” in my shoulder.
What did I do later that day? Heavy weighted dips! Genius I know… But my shoulder was fine! I was invincible!
In 2011 I was training extremely hard for an international grappling tournament in New York. The year before I had competed in the same tournament and lost in the first round pretty quickly. The loss really drove my motivation to come back and perform this time around. I was training 7 days a week, sometimes twice or even three times a day. I continued to lift heavy and hard as well. I was sore all the time. My entire body ached, but I noticed that my back was especially flared up. I simply shrugged it off. If you’re training hard you should be sore, right?
One particular day I was grappling with my coach for about an hour and a half, then went to class. As I sat through the class I couldn’t take my mind off of how uncomfortable the desk chair was. Finally, when class was dismissed and I stood up it felt like someone took a baseball bat to my lower back. My back locked up and I couldn’t pick up my backpack. It was time to see a doctor.
The General Practitioner
Keep in mind that back pain is one of the top reasons for a doctor's visit, second only behind the common cold. It's a very common occurrence and more often than not some pills and time off will do the trick.
At the doctor’s office, I gave the doc the rundown of my symptoms and she gave me some anti-inflammatories. I expressed my concern about a disc issue and she was convinced that it was just a muscle strain. I went home, took the pills for about two weeks and called back for another appointment. My back was still jacked up.
The second time she gave me some muscle relaxers along with the anti-inflammatories. She was still convinced that there is no need for an x-ray or MRI.
Again, I was back in her office within a few weeks. Despite putting my training on hold and diligently popping these prescription pills, nothing had changed. She finally put in an order for an x-ray. The x-ray came back with no significant results, and she said the structure of my spine is fine. That’s all good and dandy, but it’s important to note that an x-ray will not image the intervertebral discs between the bones, and you need an MRI to diagnose a disc herniation. She was still unwilling to give me a referral for an MRI.
She sent me home with a fresh prescription of anti-inflammatories and another muscle relaxer, and recommended I get a massage.
I got a massage, took the pills, and came back to the office a few weeks later with no good news and a frustrated attitude. I demanded the MRI. She gave me the referral and my MRI was scheduled about two weeks after that. If memory serves me right, it took about three months of living in severe lower back pain before I even got a referall for an MRI.
If any of you have had an MRI before, you know how… not-fun it can be. I was shoved into this cold hard alien tube of death for what felt like days lying flat on my back, which happened to be one of the positions that aggravated my back pain at the time. When it was all said and done, the MRI confirmed the fear that was lingering in the back of my head since the day my back locked up in class: Herniated disc, L5-S1.
The next time at the doctor’s office I got some more pills but also a referral to physical therapy. I remember feeling somewhat glad that I was finally taking steps in the right direction. My condition was diagnosed, I’ll do the PT, and finally make my way back into sports and training.
My physical therapy consisted of manual therapy, electro-stim, and a TON of extension exercises. It seemed to be a very “McKenzie method” based rehab protocol, which involves a ton of spinal extension.
The idea is that these positions will help re-center the disc bulge. Bottom line for me is… Nothing helped. Sure the massage and electro-stim felt good, but the majority of my day was spent in intense lower back pain that seemed to be getting worse. It was during my time spent regularly going to physical therapy that the pain in my lower back started creeping into my left glute and down my leg…
I used up all my PT time referred by the doc, and even came back for more sessions that were paid for out of pocket, believing that it might help. After a few months of PT with zero resolve and a ridiculous bill, I stopped coming.
Around the same time I tried seeing a chiropractor. The chiropractor I went to had a decompression table, where you get strapped down to this apparatus and it gradually applies a stretch to your spine. The idea here is that the stretch will increase the space between the vertebrae and “suck” the disc back into place. After about 20 minutes on the decompression table, the chiro cracked my back in a few places and sent me on my way. Again, nothing seemed to help.
During one particular “back-cracking” session the chiro told me I should consider giving up lifting weights, grappling, and snowboarding and take up an activity like ping-pong. He might as well have said, “Maybe you should stop living” (no offense to ping-pong players). Needless to say, that was my last session with him and I never saw him again.
Although I had a less-than-favorable experience with this particular chiropractor, I am by no means a non-believer in the practice. Since this experience I have met with several different chiropractors with whom I am very impressed and would trust to treat me or my athletes if need-be.
Not too much to say in this department… I only had one session, where they placed needles in my leg in a pattern that seemed to follow my sciatic nerve. They also placed wires on the needles that provided a gentle shock to the needles. It felt strange, slightly relaxing, but provided no lasting relief.
I didn’t know what to do at this point. My whole life was pain now, and by this time it was shooting down my left leg at full blast, sending pins and needles into my toes. I woke up to agonizing pain and stiffness in the morning, spent my entire day crippled, and crawled into bed at night praying it won’t hurt as bad the next day. I was flexion intolerant, extension intolerant, sitting down hurt, laying down hurt, walking hurt, everything hurt. I wasn't worried about competition anymore. I was worried about my quality of life and well-being. My friends and family noticed that I wasn’t the happy-go-lucky person I usually am, but I was quick to snap at people and I was irritated all the time.
I knew something had to be done, so after talking to several doctors I decided that I would try a few more options of treatment, and if there is no progress, I would go see a spinal surgeon.
To be continued!