This article is about my experience of how I recovered from a back injury. I hope this can be of some use to anybody who may have struggled with back injuries and any diagnoses of a disk pathology such as a bulging disk, or a herniation which might sound frightening.
So how did I get into a position where I hurt my back in the first place?
Well, four years ago, I tweaked my back squatting whilst I was training for a fitness model competition called Miami Pro.I was eating a very low-calorie diet set at about 1600 calories and was back squatting 110kg for ten sets of ten reps. I was low on energy and nutrients yet I was asking my body to perform at quite a high level of my ability at that time. At a certain point, my form went in the last set and I just felt something not quite right in the 9th set..that felt quite uncomfortable in my lower back. I attempted the 10th set a few minutes later but it felt uncomfortable in my lower back so I stopped the set after a couple of reps.
The next day when I woke up, I could hardly sit up, or go to the toilet as my lower back was too stiff and painful to move or bend from. However, after a few days, the pain went down entirely, and I was back to normal.
Shortly after the competition, I was able to resume training pretty much the same way I had been doing before, lifting quite heavy in deadlifts and squats and I wasn’t concerned in any way with my lower back.
About a year after this, I made a decision to stop training legs all together for a few months. They were naturally my biggest body part anyway and at least aesthetically, I didn’t feel I needed to as they were pretty big compared to the rest of me.
Now, when this happened, is when slowly, my back started to get ever so slightly weaker and weaker, and more prone to a bit of soreness. As time went on, I even consciously avoided squats and deadlifts to avoid any back pain, and if I would squat or deadlift, I would use a belt. Sensing weakness in my back, I felt was not something to worry about too much, but my girlfriend (now wife) convinced me to get an MRI scan on my back to check it. I went to have the scan…
Just before I got the scan, I had actually started training legs again, so felt quite carefree going for the scan and felt that actually, my back pain had probably been due to muscular weakness rather than any disk related issue.
And, then I got back my scan.
I read a whole load of words that sounded pretty scary about my back..
The scan showed I had disk dehydration and protrusion on L5 S1.. (the lowest intervertebral disc in my back). At that point, knowing very little about backs, disks and spinal conditions I completely freaked out.
As a lifelong gym enthusiast, I felt like I was going to be disabled, riddled with pain for the rest of my life and I had all kinds of extremely negative thoughts…The next workout I did, I managed to aggravate my lower back massively doing deadlifts.
It’s my guess that because of my extreme paranoia about hurting my back worsening my disk condition, I extremely over arched my lower back when lifting off the ground in an attempt not to round it, putting a lot of pressure throughout my back in the lift which set of the nerve in my back.
Well anyway, this cumulated in one episode of continued back pain for about 4 months with pain from the sciatic nerve that went down my left leg. During this period of time, I went through a mini depression, not knowing enough about spinal conditions to know if I was ever going to improve. I saw a physiotherapist and asked other personal trainers in my field their opinion on the subject, as well as doing a lot of research about back pain management. I read quite a few books about it, watched a lot of youtube videos about people that have recovered themselves and spoke to other people with back issues.
After 4 months of persistent discomfort and pain, My pain started to lessen and although I was still having flare-ups, they were becoming less frequent. I implemented my own recovery strategy based on what I had learned and its what I want to share with you.
9 Months after I had the initial bad spell of hurting it, slowly, but surely, my back has become less and less of a problem for me, although it is still something I am very much aware of. I still see myself being in a recovery process of sorts, and I definitely pay a lot more attention to how my body is feeling these days in terms of muscular soreness, recovery from workouts and attention to nutrition and I am much more careful with how I lift weights.
Here are 11 of the things I learned that were absolutely key to help me recover.
1. You need to get moving as soon as possible
If you have hurt your back, you might be tempted to stay as stiff as a board, for fear of setting off pain symptoms again. Whilst this might help in the short term, in my experience, it serves to make it worse over the long run. When I started to avoid squatting and bending down movements I found it much easier to experience pain when I did do those movements. My body lost control of even the simplest tasks that could then set of pain receptors when I did move.
Moving my lower back every day in some exercises was key at the start of my recovery. I got into the habit of moving it as often as possible up to 2/3 times a day. Gradually the pain symptoms started to go down from these exercises as at first, even these were painful.
This video shows some of the exercises I did to help it start moving.
2. Read This Book – The Multifidus Solution..
In this book, the author who is a physical therapist describes how the Multifidus muscles in your lower back are the fast to get weaker if you don’t train them. These muscles are very important for helping to stabilize our spine and keep it in the right alignment. When they become detrained and smaller and weaker, as often happens preceding and following back injuries, then their ability to provide spinal stability is compromised, potentially leading to more back pain.
The author of this book uses a lot of scientific studies to validate his points and basically shows you how to train this muscle and the frequency with which you need to train it to get results. It was very helpful to me to read this book and get clued up with more facts about the spine, its surrounding musculature, and the nerves. I have lent this book to two of my friends that have suffered from lower back pain because it was so helpful, clear and informative to me. You can get it very cheap on Amazon.
3. Weightlifting Can Help Your Back
When I injured my back, I avoided lifting heavy loads for a good few months. However, when I started to do barbell movements was when my back started to recover the fastest. I believe this is because the movements created a big enough stress response to create adaption in my body and then further recovery and strength building of the muscles in my lower back.
I would recommend having skilled coach guide you through these movements. sailing. There is still a risk factor, you can set off pain symptoms again but the important thing is to remember you are strengthening the area over time. Initially, certain movements may cause discomfort, but, sometimes, in my experience, you have to go through that in order to get your body, and the nerves in your back, used to moving again and being loaded again.
So, getting back to some kind of loaded training is what I believe will ultimately help your back reduce pain symptoms, as well as enabling you to have a happier and more pain-free life.
4. Adopt a positive mindset, its key to recovery.
A lot of the times, just recovering and being pain-free can seem a massive task, However, for me personally, I decided to set goals beyond this… I thought about things I wanted to do if I never hurt my back. I wanted to get back into martial arts which for a long time I was afraid of as I thought the dynamic movements would hurt my back. Anyway, I started judo, which involves a lot of throws and actually landing on your back..And I started Yoga, a lot of bending down through the spine something I was also afraid of, and I started barbell training again. All of these really helped… I took it steady and didn’t rush in, but I believe my ambitions to start these pushed my recovery faster.
Generally, the more you ask your body to do, the more it can do. Your body is an adaptive mechanism and will adapt to the stress you give it.
If you sit around all day and feel depressed about your back, as I certainly did some days, then your not going to start feeling like you can get better.
That feeling needs to come from you….. The mindset – ‘I will get better’.. get used to cementing that thought in your head.
I can’t say enough about how important it is to have a positive mindset. Lower back pain, and having some kind of diagnosis, can be very mentally challenging. Feeling like your body is broken etc. But I believe you have to work on cultivating the belief it will get better in order to help it improve. At some point, everybody gets injured.. but the body has an amazing capacity to heal.
5. Try to Make Good Nutritional Habits
In order for your disk, back and supporting musculature to heal, adapt and become stronger, I believe the food you eat and your hydration habits play a key role.
Your body needs the ingredients to heal and the right hormonal environment.
Eating adequate protein, and good quality fats and carbohydrates are key.
With interpretable disks having a very low blood supply and being compressed of 80% water, I believe nutrition is a key factor to help with recovery…
I believe a healthy diet with lots of protein, and enough calories are key to recovering a lower back.
Adequate nutrients and energy are required to heal the disk, so I believe you should aim to provide a bountiful supply.
Despite not having concrete scientific evidence behind it, I believe supplementing with Glucosamine Sulphate was helpful for me to recover my injury. It’s thought to be utilized by the body to help produce ligaments, tendons, and cartilage. Your intervertebral disks are made of cartilage.
Sleep is where your body releases the majority of its growth hormone, your bodies repair and building hormone. So the quality of your sleep is extremely important, along with getting enough sleep.
If you are somebody that struggles with getting enough sleep then I recommend these tips… Things that can improve the quality of your sleep are, switching off all electrical screens and strong lights an hour before going to sleep. Bright lights activate our sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for being awake and alertness, precisely the thing we don’t need for a good quality sleep. Before bed, you want to be as relaxed and sleep as possible. Reading with a table lamp is great for this, as is a warm bath with candles.. this helps to activate our sleep relaxing mechanisms referred to as our parasympathetic nervous system.
Paying attention to how you stand and sit I feel is quite important. For personally, making sure I don’t overarch my lower back when standing and keep my core engaged as often as I remember when standing and sitting is helpful.
9. Consult professional help
Speaking to a good physio can be very relieving. If the only person you consult is the conversation inside your own head, it’s probably not a good person to talk to if you’re in pain and having depressed thoughts. Lower back pain is one of if not the physios most common complaint so they are used to dealing with it. It’s worth getting somebody good.
10. Read this article not written by me – https://startingstrength.com/article/aches-and-pains
It challenges a lot of the ideas we have about pain. It talks a lot about pain management, and how a lot of it is mental rather than based on purely physical symptoms. I found it very helpful to make me feel positive going forwards in my outlook towards getting stronger.
11. Feeling Back Pain Every Now and Then is Normal
Remember that although you may have suffered back pain, everybody sometimes has a little lower back pain. Its normal every now and then. Basically learning this helps me not freak out if I feel a little twinge sometimes and then, I remind myself I’m pretty much healed or better.
The way I think about pain has changed. Basically, your body is an adaptive mechanism, if you believe you are injured in a certain area, you are more likely to experience pain. If you believe you are healed, you are less likely to feel pain.
The first important thing to note is that something like 50% of all people over the age of 25 will reveal a spine pathology of some sort. What this means is you might have a disc bulge, herniation, dehydration or protrusion somewhere on your spine… All these scary words are not as bad as they sound.
So there you go guys, here is a bit of my story, and how I recovered. It’s not an easy path or the one you chose perhaps, but, its a path you must walk if you want to be successful.
So, If you are serious about getting into shape, you have tried before and it hasn’t quite got the results you want….
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