My Back Pain Journey - Part 1 of 3
If you’re an adult in the U.S. experiencing pain, more often than not, it is back or neck pain. If we’re talking about just low back pain, it’s estimated that up to 80% of U.S. adults will endure it at some point - that's right, nearly everyone.
Globally, low back pain is #1 cause of disability (expressed as the number of years folks live disabled in some way). Back pain has a serious impact on the quality of our lives, our ability to be present and productive, and our vitality as we age. It affects our mental health, relationships, jobs, personal finances, economy, healthcare system, and so on.
When your back hurts, everything suffers.
Many of you are probably nodding your heads right now (or maybe shaking your heads, or maybe not moving your heads at all because it hurts too much when you do that - ouch). If that’s you, I understand. I know from firsthand experience just how devastating and debilitating back pain can be.
What follows is a 3-part series all about my back pain journey. I’ll talk about the causes and contributing factors to my condition, what worked for me and what didn’t in terms of treatment, and offer my advice (learned the hard way!) on caring for your back now and well into your future.
Please keep reading and share this post so we can reach our fellow back pain sufferers!
Although I was plagued with intermittent back issues starting in my mid-teens, luckily the pain never interfered with my daily life. That is, until 2014 when, during some bent-over barbell rows, I felt something give way in my low back and I doubled over in pain right there in the gym.
I only was 28 years old and I was experiencing serious, crippling back pain.
The discomfort kept me from the gym, made it difficult to sit or stand for long, and stopped my sex life almost entirely (#TMI). I felt incredibly frustrated - I was a single mother, budding young professional, and new fitness enthusiast who was side-lined in many pursuits by the type of pain I once thought was reserved for those with traumatic injuries or the elderly.
I sought medical care immediately, but it took more than half a year to get a definitive diagnosis; my insurance company at the time required six months of physical therapy prior to approving an MRI. I was already in good shape and otherwise healthy, so physical therapy did little to help me, though I did gain a deep appreciation for the work these therapists do!
Following my failed attempt at rehab, I finally got in to see a neurologist who ordered and reviewed my scans. I was told that I had spondylolisthesis, a condition where a vertebra in the low back slips out of place and places stress on the muscles and nerves around it. My last intervertebral disc (between L5 and S1) was almost completely gone.
Spondylolisthesis can cause not only intense pain in the low back due to muscle disruption, but also pain that radiates down the hip, leg, and foot on one or both sides of the body, a phenomenon caused by nerve impingement. I had pain in my low back, right hip, and down the entire length of my right leg and foot.
How could someone who had always been relatively healthy have this debilitating disease at such a young age? There are a variety of factors that can contribute to back issues, so allow me to provide an overview of mine.
Since most of us will have back pain at some point, we could probably all say that we have congenital causes of back pain. I mean, have any of your parents or grandparents ever suffered from back problems? Yep, thought so.
Although a number of my relatives have struggled, it is worth noting that both my mom and my sister suffer from nearly identical symptoms, albeit less debilitating than mine. My mom even has a pars defect in her spine like I do. Guess we have the same bad backs!
Leg Length Differential
When I was barely 3 years old, I broke my femur (thigh bone).
It happened at a local roller rink in a freak accident. A young employee there was taken by my dashing cuteness and couldn’t resist picking me up and carrying me around…while on her skates. You can probably guess what happened next.
When she inevitably tripped and dropped me, she fell directly on my tiny body. In that 90 degree angle where skating surface meets walking surface, my toddler-sized femur snapped like a twig under her weight.
Apparently femurs are one of the most painful bones in the body to break; luckily I have no memory of the incident (shout out to my mom for helping with some of these details - HI MOM!!). I got to ride in an ambulance and have my leg reset at the hospital (I probably loved that part – I have always been infatuated with medical care).
What followed were seven weeks in a full body cast, urinating and defecating out of a small hole in the bottom (I refused a diaper because I was three years old and wasn’t "a baby!”), and finally learning how to walk again once I was healed.
My parents settled out of court for $25,000 (about $52,000 in 2020 dollars, adjusted for inflation). Their lawyer got a third and much of the money was used to pay for my medical bills, while the remainder was placed in a bank account for me to receive when I came of age. (I should note that I did obtain and promptly squander this money shortly after I turned 18….but that is another story entirely!)
Now, to be clear, my back problems were not caused by breaking my leg, but they were exacerbated by this incident.
How, you might wonder? Well, the leg I broke, my right leg, is now significantly longer than my left. More bone grew to repair the break, so my right leg is over half an inch longer than my left leg. Interestingly, it also caused my dominant leg/foot to switch sides (for instance, I am right-handed but I cartwheel on my left). The difference in leg length is enough to cause additional wear on my spine as it compensates for the imbalance. Remember, the radiating pain was down my right leg - the one that broke in 1989.
In high school, years of “flying” on top of our cheerleading stunts as well as supporting other flyers as a front or back spotter meant more wear and tear on my low back. Cheerleading is a physically demanding sport, to be sure.
During my cheerleading days, my low back was always covered in scrapes and bruises from coming down in a “cradle” – a stunt dismount maneuver that has since fallen out of favor due to its high injury rate. It is quite likely that internal damage was done to spine from my years as a cheerleader.
The day of my senior prom, I was T-boned in a (my fault) car accident while going to Walgreens to purchase press-on nails (that was my first mistake). I did not notice any pain at the time or even during the dance, but my low back troubled me for weeks afterward.
The accident could have caused additional damage or perhaps just highlighted the damage I already had. I did not seek medical care after the accident – what teenage girl has time for doctor visits when she’s getting ready to head to college?!
I may have the world’s worst posture, something I now work on daily (thanks #yoga!). For years I have walked around and sat down hunched over, hiding myself as much as possible due to social anxiety, insecurity, and simple lack of awareness. Now I constantly reminding myself to keep my shoulders back, heart high, neck and head erect! I fight to stand up straighter, hold my head higher, and feel better about myself when doing so.
A Desk Job
I daylight as an information systems project manager who is attached to her laptop. This means butt in chair and back hunched over for as many as 10 hours a day (but #blessed to be working, y’all!). Still, ouch!
Pregnancy (and Lingering Baby Weight)
When I was pregnant with my son Hawken (now nearly 12 years old), I gained over 60 pounds. That’s not a typo. The pregnancy placed an enormous (pun-intended) strain on my low back, and you know I didn’t lose the weight right after he was born. For years I carried on my small frame more weight than it was designed to move – a situation with which most of us are familiar. Hauling extra pounds definitely puts strain on the back!
Now you have an overview of my condition and the contributing factors. If anything about this blog resonates with you, you will want to stay tuned!
In my next post, I’ll discuss the various treatments I tried in an effort to resolve my back issues and provide details on the outcomes. Please keep reading!
P.S. The last post in this series will include some tips on caring for your back, but you don't have to wait until then to get help!
There are a lot of free resources on YouTube, so that's a great place to start if you're careful about vetting the source. Just remember that anyone can upload a video to the Internet; please be cautious about whose advice you follow.
If you need 1:1 guidance, please contact me. I can coach you online or in person. You can start improving your back health right away and just watch while every other area of your life improves as you do!