Why I’m in pain (almost) every day

This is a long one guys. And pretty much no jokes. I know. I always have jokes but not today. If you’re not in the mood to stick around for a while, I’d recommend going elsewhere.

I played football growing up. I was never great or anything, but I played, which means I lifted. When I was 14 or 15, I was doing squats with a weight that shouldn’t have been a problem (225 pounds). But for some reason on a rep, my hips went up and my shoulders didn’t. I dropped with the weight onto the catch bars and wrenched my back in the process (had a spotter, but no telling if it happened slow enough that he would have been any use or if he was just a shoddy spotter).

Being the little idiot that I was and living in the football culture that I did, I never sought treatment. This was a time when coaches were still yelling, “Water makes you weak!” and had us practicing full pads in 115-degree heat (though thankfully that was the one day they didn’t mind us drinking water). These same coaches were big on the “Are you injured or are you hurt? If you’re hurt, you can keep playing.”

Well, I could keep playing. I went through at least a solid two weeks of pretty awful pain, but I was able to do everything. I just had to twist to one side every time I stood up from tying my shoe. Totally normal stuff. Eventually, the pain went away, and everything went back to normal.


 

So that’s the start of the story. Of course, we know that’s not the end of the story. We know that if that was the end of the story, it would be a quicker story. Unfortunately, things stopped being normal eventually. Slowly. Like that frog they always talk about sitting in a pot as the water is brought to boil around it without the frog knowing.

I hate that I’m the frog in this story.

When I stopped playing football 3 years later, something new started to happen. My back started to hurt. It would take years to figure out the reason my back started to hurt was due to inactivity. After hurting my back, I was ridiculously active. There were times where I was consuming 3,000 calories a day and still losing weight (I had a habit of losing 10 pounds every football season and then having to fight to put it back on in the following months). I was running, I was lifting, and I was running some more. There was a point in my junior year I was doing 3 workouts a day: lifting for powerlifting in the morning, running and lifting for football in the middle of the day, and running for track in the afternoon.

I never thought of myself as someone who was in great shape, but I shudder to even think about 15 workouts every single week.

Now the pain wasn’t really bad at first. It was more dullish aches than anything else. It was weird. I didn’t like it, but I suspected it had something to do with the incident three years earlier. But I still didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t an everyday thing.

But it kept getting worse. And I did start to notice, vaguely, that the pain was more present when I was relaxing than at any other time.

When I moved to Florida, I had 6 weeks to kill. Aside from furnishing my apartment, I really had nothing to do, so I sat around reading and watching TV. And my back gave me problems for that. Randomly, I saw a PBS informercial thing on pilates and they talked about it helping back pain. I had back pain, and the lady on TV was talking about back pain. Kismet.

I went to the bookstore to find a book on pilates or yoga (they seemed like basically the same thing to me). I opted for yoga because it seemed more guy-friendly. Hell, Diamond Dallas Page even had a yoga book geared toward men, and this is before his yoga products were widely known. While DDP helped steer me to yoga, I wasn’t buying the broga book. Years before #masculinitysofragile started making its way around the worldwide weberverse, I knew I wasn’t going to be played like that. I bought a generic hatha yoga book and went to Walmart to pick up a yoga mat. Well, an exercise mat anyway. I had tile floors, and the yoga mat didn’t seem like it would give me enough cushion for my knee (which was correct, and that’s an injury story for another day).

This is the only time in my life that I managed to do yoga every day. My mornings started with me working through the beginner flows, progressing a little bit every day.

And my back stopped hurting. My knee wasn’t giving me trouble either. Eventually, I could touch the floor for the first time in years (at one point in high school, I could stand on those thick bumper plates and touch the ground, but that was a LONG time ago).

It was magic, but the magic had to stop eventually. I had work to do.

Once I fell into the routine of working on my Ph.D. and my assistantship, yoga was never a daily thing again. I would do my best to keep up with it, but getting 2-3 sessions a week was the best I could do, and there would be weeks where I wouldn’t practice at all.

And my back got worse. A lot worse.

Eventually, I had a different injury. This time it was costochondritis. It’s a cartliage issue by the sternum. And if you think you have this, you get told to see a doctor to make sure you’re not having a heart attack first. That’s fun. It took two solid months to properly diagnose the issue, but I started physical therapy, and things got better.

Except my back. It flared up for a few days worse than it ever had before. I was in the office one day and had to just lie on the floor for a little while to get what little relief I could. I was a grade-A jerk when this was going on.

The PT didn’t have anything terribly useful to tell me beyond it looked like a muscle spasm. Except it really wasn’t. That muscle had always been raised. It wasn’t a spasm because that’s just how it was. If I put my back to a wall, I would tilt a little (same with lying on a hard surface). I’d had someone who was giving me a back rub tell me how pronounced the difference was. And I was starting to pay attention. Things weren’t the way they were supposed to be.

So I got a massage. Yep. I did that instead of going to the doctor. I haven’t had good success with doctors, and I’d been dealing with the pain for so long, that it didn’t seem all that bad. Just more of the same, even if it was worse. Remember, I’m the frog in this story.

I should note, the PT said a massage might help. It did, but the problem wasn’t fixed. I’ve gotten into the habit of getting at least a couple of massages every year just to help. I don’t know what it does, if anything, for the long term, but it makes me feel at least a little better for a little while.

Eventually, I moved again, but there was no extended downtime before starting the next job. I showed up in Mississippi at 7 one evening, and I was leaving for work at 7 the next morning.

Luckily, this transition did spur me to one thing: I was going to find a yoga class. Hopefully.

Before I left Florida, I joined a friend for a couple of yoga classes. It killed me, but it also showed me I could get more out of yoga with a teacher than I could get on my own most days.

Despite being a small town, there’s a studio here. I went to a class, but I hated it. I really did. I didn’t gel with the teacher, and I got next-to-nothing from the session. I decided I’d go back one more time for a different teacher. If I didn’t like it, then I’d figure something else out. But it worked. I’ve talked about my Goldilocks teacher before, and that was her. It was just my speed, and I don’t think I can properly thank her for being a pleasant person and teaching a class that was just enough to push me without wanting to throw a block at her.

I was only doing two sessions a week, but two sessions was better than zero. Over the next year and half, I kept up an ok habit of yoga, except for a 2- to 3-month lapse. I was managing, but there was a problem. There was a spot on my spine that was becoming sensitive to the touch. I couldn’t do certain poses the way everyone else did because I’d hit that spot, and it would hurt. I knew if something on my spine was hurting, then it was probably best not to agitate it (I should note that I use a regular yoga mat in classes because of peer pressure, so I don’t know how the cushiony exercise mat would fair for this problem).

And it got worse. That spot became more sensitive over time. And my back was having more flareups. And it was exhausting. Physically and mentally exhausting.

My breaking point had been reached, and I finally saw a doctor. Actually, that’s a lie. I told a doctor about this at some point after moving here. He had me bend over to look at my spine and didn’t say anything. This is a part of that history of bad experiences with doctors that I was talking about.

When I saw a new doctor, I told him about the history, and he was checked me out. He had me bend over to look at my back. He noted the raised muscle on one side, and we did an X-ray. Quick and easy.

Sort of.

The technician took a while to come back into the room while I was on my side, and I started getting paranoid. My parents smoked my entire childhood, and I’ve never had X-rays other than the dental variety. I was paranoid my lungs were going to show something. Of course, that wasn’t it, but I was still paranoid, and when you lay on your side longer than expected, it’s a surprisingly vulnerable position.

The X-ray showed curvature of the spine. I wish I had taken a picture, but I didn’t think to. It’s a shock to look at something and without a medical degree know that what you’re seeing isn’t what you’re supposed to be seeing. Scoliosis was never used as a term (just curvature), but based on the curve I was seeing and what the internet says scoliosis is, that’s what I’ve got. Yay.

I should back up at this point to talk about the obvious. Prior to the injury, there was no back issue at all. In fact, I was checked for scoliosis in the months leading up to the incident. The fact is, I don’t know when things really went too far. I spent the first 3 years afterward not having any issues. I was so active, there really wasn’t the opportunity for flareups to occur. So I don’t know when my spine got out of whack. I just know that it’s 15 years later and my spine’s out of whack.

Here’s the fun part: There’s not really much they can do for me. It’s not a severe case, so bracing and surgery aren’t really required. The best I can do is manage the pain, the doc said. Physical therapy and a chiropractor were brought up as options. I’d had success with PT before, so I opted for that (I’m also terrified of a chiropractor touching my neck).

Big mistake. Mostly.

The PT was a d-bag. When I went to schedule, the person I met with was confused as to why I was sent to them with that diagnosis. When I came back for the appointment, I met the PT for the first time, and I wanted to punch him in the face.

He started grilling me about why I was seeking treatment now instead of earlier. Evidently, being in pain for ten years and having a new issue spring up in the last year weren’t adequate reasons for him. It was like he was suspicious of me. He made it abundantly clear that PT wasn’t going to fix the problem (I knew that); it would just help me manage at best (I also knew that). I explained that daily yoga was the only thing that had ever helped for a good amount of time, and then he was confused as to why I wasn’t still doing that. He didn’t seem to grasp that I didn’t have an extra hour every day to practice (and it’s really 2 when you throw in travel, showering, etc.). Even at home, it still takes 30 minutes to get a good session in.

I’m ranting. I’m still mad about this encounter.

He gave me some stretches to do, got kind of condescending about yoga even as he was telling me I should do more yoga, told me to be mindful of my posture (as did my last PT), and gave me nothing on strengthening muscles.

And that’s when he lost me.

He wanted to improve my flexibility (awesome) but didn’t want to strengthen my core muscles (not awesome). He could grasp yoga’s benefit for flexibility, but he didn’t seem to grasp that it was also benefitting strength that helped keep me upright.

I’d be lying if I said I got nothing from this. He did give one tip to keep me sitting up straight better: roll up a towel and wedge it behind my back to prevent slouching (like the slouching I’m doing right now as I type this up… I should work on that). He was adamant about this. He said the fancy back supports exist, but a rolled up towel would work just as well. Even a paper towel roll would work. Guess what I had access to back at the office?

IMG_6099

But it was mostly a waste of time. I got a bunch of stretches that are variations of what I was already doing with my breakfast routine, with a couple of extras thrown in, and I got told to basically be on my way. And I’m not going back there ever again.

Now it’s been about a week since the X-ray and getting told something that I’d always suspected: I’ll be stuck with this the rest of my life, and the best I can do is manage the pain.

And that’s so damned depressing.

The finality of it’s been a bit much, even knowing that’s what I was probably going to be told. I’m having to manage a condition (never mind that I’ve been managing it for years already). No matter what I do, in all likelihood, this will always be around.

Something you might not know, but Kurt Cobain and Hank Williams both suffered from back pain. Look how they ended up.

This is being dramatic. Their pain was worse than mine. And there are people a lot worse off in this world. This won’t kill me. This won’t even prevent me from doing the things I want to do. I’ll just be in pain a good amount of the time. And that’s tiring.

That said, I went to the doctor because I was fed up. I’m tired, but I’m not stopping, so we need a plan.

Of course, the plan’s been in place for a while; I just have an X-ray showing why the plan is necessary.

Before diving into the (sort of) plan, I have to acknowledge two things that cause my back to ache more often than it otherwise would. The first is weight. I know my body, including my back, likes me a lot better when I’m under 180. Around two years ago, I cleared 200 for the first time. That sucked. But I’ve been slowly losing weight and getting back to where I was originally at (and hopefully I can take off some more).

The Super Awesome Year of Me wasn’t planned for nothing. I mixed in some other things, but there’s a reason seven of the months were about diet and exercise.

The second thing that causes me problems is running. After runs, I often have an achy back from putting my feet to the pavement. Weight is a likely contributor, but the way I run doesn’t help either. I haven’t noticed it as much the past few weeks, so I guess slowing down my runs has helped.

So, what am I doing to take care of this issue?

More of the same. Yeah, it’s not a blockbuster plan, but it’s a plan built on sustainability.

I already mentioned the Super Awesome Year of Me, but I left out that one of those months is yoga. I’m going to do daily yoga for the first time since 2009. I hope this finally gets me somewhere again. The PT might have been a jackass, but he was right. I need to be better about making more time for yoga. Flexibility and core strength are more than enough to justify it, but I also need the mental benefits to counteract the other mental carryover from this.

In the meantime, I’m just going to have to keep stretching because upping my mileage to attempt a 10K is going to keep me out of the yoga studio more than I’d like. I should probably throw in more core exercises, though I won’t have a prescribed workout because the PT’s an idiot. Again, I’m still mad.

The other thing is to keep dropping weight. That’s a must for a lot of reasons, but at the very least it take stress off my body and lessens the impact of every step. I’ll never weight 150 again (and I don’t really want to), but I think I can drop down to 170 and keep enough muscle to still be the awesome person that I am.

That’s a lot to take in. I commend you for making it this far, but I have one little thing to add: I haven’t told my family. And I don’t know that I will. There’s not much I can do, so this is just something for them to worry about for no good reason. So if you see my parents, could you keep this on the DL? Heck, I’m not even posting this to Twitter because I don’t want work acquaintances seeing this, but we’re all friends here, right? Awesome.

-Q

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