How I learned to manage my chronic back pain with exercise
I stick to a core workout routine like it’s a religion. I have good reason to believe in core strength — not only am I able to run again, but I no longer have soul-stealing, excruciating back pain. Anyone who’s had a major episode of back trouble probably knows what I’m talking about. The pain can make you crazy, and no position or pill will take it away. It’s the sort of pain that can ruin your life, and it almost ruined mine until I discovered the power of slowly healing myself through exercise.
After a year and a half of suffering, I was at my breaking point. My back was literally killing me. I couldn’t sit, so I ate all of my meals standing, worked standing and drove in one of the weirdest positions you can imagine. I ran and lifted weights through the pain for a while, but I couldn’t lie down comfortably and therefore couldn’t sleep. Sometimes, something would offer temporary relief — especially chiropractic adjustments — but the pain would return with a vengeance. An MRI showed a slight bulge in the L4-L5 disc, but nothing that would justify the massive amount of debilitating pain I experienced.
I was shocked and devastated when giving up running not only didn’t help, but seemed to further exacerbate my back pain. Pain became a dominant thought and overshadowed even the happiest moments. I tried every potential fix I could think of, from massage to steroid injections to herbal supplements. I finally found that I could sleep for a couple hours if I stacked four pillows under my legs, but the nightly routine of arranging my bedding was daunting and often ineffective.
I was losing my mind to back pain, and my coping mechanism for stress — running — became impossible. I didn’t want to die, but I couldn’t bear to live with that much pain anymore. Everybody had a suggestion, but nobody had a solution. My despair was compounded by professional frustration. I work in physical therapy and help patients get stronger and healthier. It seemed that I could relieve other people’s pain, but not my own.
A friend of mine who struggles with hip pain told me about a special training clinic that uses a non-traditional approach to healing. I have always been a major believer in the power of exercise even though traditional rehab had failed me so far. I anxiously made an appointment, knowing I was down to my last chance.
The minute I met the guys who would work with me, I knew I was in the right place.
Everything was different from the conventional approach to pain, and with an almost casual ease, the physical therapist said he thought all of my issues stemmed from a motor control problem in my right hip. In other words, my gluteal muscles weren’t working correctly. My butt wasn’t doing its job. And when the butt isn’t working, the rest of the body is set up for disaster. The pelvis becomes unstable, and an unstable pelvis can’t properly support the spine.
It was such a simple, almost funny concept — all of my misery was due to a non-functioning backside. Fix the butt, fix the back. Of course, there was more to it than that, but we immediately got to work on waking up my dormant gluteal muscles and strengthening my core to help stabilize my pelvis. It was hard to believe that a serious athlete and runner had a useless butt, but it really was the essence of my problem.
The guys coached me through repetition after repetition of exercises like single-leg bridges, glute squeezes and side planks. They constantly corrected my form, and their nitpicking had major benefits. The first time I stood up off the treatment table and realized my back didn’t hurt, I felt my soul suddenly return to life.
The basic concepts of my rehab are easy to grasp. The core is more than just abs, despite the common belief that core and abs are synonymous. The abs definitely play a roll, but the muscles that extend the back and move the hips are just as important. If any part of the core is weak or imbalanced, like my gluteal muscles, the pelvis can become misaligned and wreak havoc on the back and hips. If you deal with back pain, I highly recommend finding a specialist who can evaluate your pelvic stability and help you balance and strengthen your core.
It was a long road to rehab, and every day is still a battle. I can run for an hour now and lift weights. Most days and nights, I experience a significant amount of pain. But there are hours, and sometimes several hours in a row, where I don’t have pain at all, and I still see improvement every week.
Not only can I sit for longer than a few seconds at a time, but I can actually sit through meals with friends and drive out of town without stopping every few minutes. I sleep much better, and even though it’s a continuing struggle to get comfortable at night, my four extra pillows are down to two.
I spend anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour on core exercises every day, no matter how busy or tired I am. What works for me may be completely different than what works for someone else, but I truly believe that almost anybody will benefit from a good core routine.
Sometimes, I start to feel resentment toward my commitment to the workout — like I’d really rather just sit on the couch and watch TV instead of lie on the floor and plank — but I always remind myself of how lucky I am to be able to manage chronic pain with consistent exercise instead of constant medication. I've blogged for years about my journey to good health, and my passion is to share the benefits of exercise with anyone who's willing to try it for themselves.