3 February 2016

Advice for chronic lower back pain

Chronic back pain (SIJ) was my biggest, most painful and longest lasting issue. It is still a problem but a manageable one. From being so overweight (190cm with an almost matching weight of 175kg), I damaged myself with the abuse of food and no exercise for over a decade. While the weight is mostly gone now, the damage is done. I had constant pain in my back of about 5 out of 10, with 10 being the most pain I had ever experienced. (Until that point, the greatest pain was getting my testicle squashed between my thigh and a speeding cricket ball. Said cricket ball was struck for what would have been a boundary had I not intercepted it at full sprint without groin protection. There is a lesson here somewhere I think.)

No one can understand the mental anguish associated with chronic pain until they experience it themselves. When you are in a lot of pain for several years, where prescribed pain killers don’t help at all and every test from doctors and surgeons state they can’t help, you get quite down on life and yourself. I struggled to get out of bed to go sit at my work desk for 8 hours with a smile on my face
Chronic Pain Mindwhile an army of gremlins stabbed me in my spine. I spent thousands of dollars for tests with spinal specialists that were billed as so competent that “if they can’t help no one can”. That hope was shattered into acceptance that I would never be pain free. While that was an emotional low it actually helped me. I finally had an answer that this pain was my life now and it wouldn't improve. There was no reason to delay anything until I got better as I figured I never would. The doctors had said as much. A month later I returned to martial arts that I had toyed with since I was 15 but stopped due to a knee injury at 21. I was about 30 at this stage.

The three most influential people that actually managed to reduce my pain are: my coach and great friend John Campbell at Infinite MMA; Dr Kerry at Kiro Kids; and Grant at Ballarat Sports and Exercise Rehabilitation Centre. In no uncertain terms, martial arts and the expert work of Kerry and Grant saved me from my personal pain-filled hell.

Training under John forced me to rethink how my body could move. I began stretching properly so I could perform the advanced techniques he was teaching. My muscles strengthened as I became more limber. I had more energy and a larger lung capacity. But even better, while training my back pain faded and for the first time in years I had temporary reprieve from agony. A reprieve far greater than any opiate the doctor prescribed.

The tag team of Kerry and Grant took this temporary success further. Within six months my constant level 5 pain dropped to level 3. That in itself was enough to make me cry out of joy, but it didn’t stop there. With the education and skills they have instilled in me I can keep my chronic back pain to a level 2 most of the time, and it almost fades to zero when training. A lot of these skills will be shared in future posts; however they should be coupled with visits to trusted professionals such as Kerry and Grant.

I get irregular flare ups where the pain intensifies, but a quick visit to my tag team sorts that out before it gets too bad. This step is critical as without it my pain leeches into all areas of my body, stressing muscles and mixing the perfect cocktail for injury.

The reason I'm sharing this is to tell you that if you have similar issues there is help out there. I spent a lot of time and money finding the right people that talk to each other. Here is my take away from that journey:
  1. Never accept failure of treatment. Ask for alternatives and if something doesn't begin to start relief with a month or two, move on.
  2. Go to a rehab specialist or physiotherapist first. They train for years on just muscular and body movement issues. GPs are highly skilled but they need to worry more about issues that can kill you. As such they spend a short amount of time learning how to treat muscular issues. Surgeons only know how to treat issues with surgery. That may seem obvious but it isn't taken into account enough. If a surgeon says you need surgery you tend to believe there is nothing else (I know I did). Surgery is the nuclear option from orbit. It should fix the issue but it also destroys lesser, cheaper options such as a year of rehab. Physio’s and Chiro’s should treat you as much as possible, then when they run out of options, refer you to a GP or surgeon for the next step. Don’t skip to the last step first.
  3. Just like anything worthwhile, it takes time. Don’t give up after a few difficult months. You will experience low points. You will have a hard time and there will be pain, copious amounts of sweat and tears, but it’s important to see it through. You will improve with the right people in your corner.
  4. Listen to the advice of those you selected to help. If they say you have to stretch at least 5 times a day for the next month then do it 6 times a day. Yes work can get in the way, but it usually only takes 5 minutes and you can schedule it with a toilet break. A first aid room is generally always an option, or you can book a meeting room.
  5. If you haven’t already, get into a sport that promotes a lot of different movements. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is perfect for this as it is low impact, provides strength, flexibility and a large range of motion. If you are in the area I recommend Infinite MMA in Ballarat. Hopefully I’ll see you there.

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