Improve Your Disc Pain With These Simple TipsNov 30, 2023
I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. A sharp popping sensation in my back and then an odd, almost warm tingling feeling down my left leg. I knew it wasn’t good, and I should have known better.
This was my first week at an infantry brigade I had been assigned to in 2011. I was the only physical therapist assigned to a group of 3,500 soldiers. My job was to treat all injuries, teach injury prevention classes, and help with human performance optimization. I was also attached to an infantry brigade so that meant a lot of physical training and ruck marching.
On my fourth day assigned to this group, I went on a Thursday morning ruck march. For those of you that don’t know, ruck marching is basically walking around while wearing a 50-pound backpack. This morning we had gone on an 8-mile ruck march. When I finished, I dropped my rucksack (i.e heavy ass backpack) and stood around talking with the other soldiers. As I was leaving, I bent over to pick up my rucksack and that’s when I felt the pop.
I immediately knew something was wrong, but the last thing I wanted to do was get hurt in front of all my soldiers. I was the guy assigned to this group to make sure people didn’t get hurt and there I was in excruciating back pain trying to act like I was fine. I managed to make it to my car before collapsing into my seat. I drove straight to the troop medical clinic to see a fellow physical therapist friend of mine. There was no unringing this bell… the damage was already done.
Over the next six months, I did everything to help fix this back injury I had given myself. Fatigue from the ruck march followed by picking something heavy up, like an idiot, was a recipe for a pretty serious disc injury. I had what’s called an L4-L5 disc prolapse. This caused me to have a lot of numbness and weakness in the back of my left leg.
With a combination of dry needling, hip joint mobilizations, and time, my pain resolved in about six months. It took me roughly another six months before I could get back into deadlifting heavy. 12 months of rehab/recovery from picking up a rucksack wrong. As much as this wasn’t fun, I’m glad it happened to me, and here’s why.
I learned a lot about why I had this back injury in the first place and was able to correct those issues. This injury lead me down the path of better understanding complex movements. I became obsessed with treating my own back and developing protocols to help other people with their back injury. Lastly, I can relate to anyone I see with a back injury on a much deeper level than someone who’s never hurt their back.
I also got to see first hand that disc injuries do heal. Even when I was in school, the thought process was that a disc injury wouldn’t heal. I have an MRI from one month after the injury and three years after the injury. The MRI from one month post injury shows a significant disc prolapse that’s pressing on a nerve. The MRI from three years post injury looks completely normal. The body heals on the inside just as it does when you get a cut on your skin. It fills in, heals, and you have a scar as a reminder of the thing that happened.
Dealing with a disc injury can be extremely frustrating. Here’s my advice to you if you’re currently dealing with one from my own experience and from all of the back injuries I’ve seen:
- Even though it’s tough, try and stay positive. The brain is a powerful thing and the moment you slip into a negative state, you’ll feel it. You’ll feel more pain, you’ll feel less capable and you’ll start to think worst case scenario. None of this is helpful when it comes to healing.
- Focus on small wins and on things you can do. By this I mean focus on the days you have where you feel better. Maybe you were able to walk further without pain. Maybe you wake up pain-free for the first time in a month. Maybe you sneezed for the first time without back pain. Focus on these little wins because they are signs that your body is healing.
- Avoid activities that cause more pain. I know this sounds like common sense but I think some people love pain. Isolated pain in your back with certain movements should be avoided as much as possible. No pain no gain doesn’t apply with this type of injury.
- Stay active. I’ve never worked with someone with a disc injury that couldn’t find something they could do without aggravating their back. Sure, maybe it’s not the CrossFit workout you’re used to but you can still stay strong, flexible and cardiovascularly fit while you heal.
- Work with a professional. This isn’t something you want to try and figure out on your own. The spine is complex and making sure you’re working on the right things can dramatically improve your healing time. Also, things like hands on work and dry needling are really effective at decreasing pain as you heal.
- Follow a plan to get back into high level activities. If you’re a runner, you probably don’t want to just start back to full on training after your back starts to feel better. You want to follow a specific plan to help get you strong in the right places, mobile where you’re tight and increase your volume in an effective manner. If you don’t know how to do that, again I recommend working with a professional. The only thing more frustrating than a back injury is a back re-injury.
- Work on your breathing. This was a game changer for me and for many of my patients. There are a lot of reasons that I won’t explain here for why this is beneficial. Just know that it is and this is my favorite app to work on breathing.
- Read The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday. Having a back injury sucks. This booked helped me deal with frustration and realize there was a lesson to be learned.
- Shameless plug… come see us. We help people with disc and back injuries everyday. We are really good at it and have helped hundreds of people avoid surgery.
I hope this helps and I hope you realize that you can heal. Your body is incredible and often times it just needs time and the right approach to do so.
If you’re in the Atlanta area and are currently dealing with a back injury, we need to talk. We’ve helped thousands of people in Atlanta get back to a pain-free, active life, and we can help you as well.
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