Conquering Pain, Gaining Strength
I can’t remember exactly how or when I hurt my back, but I can’t forget all the pain I was in over the years as a result. My story of recovery is one I’m proud to share. If you’re suffering from back pain and spasms that are interfering with your life, read on to find out how a regimen of simple movements can strengthen your body and get you moving again.
In the Beginning
I’d been dancing with a local company since 2002, and so my back pain was likely a result of overuse. The body can only take so much flexion and rotation before it begins to fight back. An MRI showed herniated discs and arthritis. I started physical therapy, which got me moving better than before. That was five years ago.
Then in 2008 my back began to give me problems again. At first, I thought a little pain here and there was no big deal; but then I started to have issues when practicing yoga. Eventually I had to quit yoga altogether and, at least three times that year, my back went into spasms. The first time happened in rehearsal; the next at the studio when I picked up a TV. Then it happened again a few months later.
By 2009 I noticed how uncomfortable I was feeling almost every day. I was having trouble sitting; and trouble driving. Now there was a sharp, shooting pain down my leg that had not been there before. And dancing was increasingly becoming more painful. As summer rolled around, a dance class put me out for a week and I held back pain-induced tears one afternoon as I drove to DC for a performance. By October, I made a very emotional but mature decision to stop dancing. My body was suffering. And I was suffering, mentally and emotionally. I made an appointment with a new physical therapist, one who specializes in working with dancers. The second MRI showed multiple herniated discs and what used to be a little arthritis five years earlier, was now severe arthritis. I felt somewhat relieved to know physical issues were contributing to my pain, but I wondered what to do next.
I started physical therapy again. Exercises that should have been easy for me were difficult and they hurt. I felt so weak and pathetic. How could I look so strong on the outside but be so weak in reality? Had years of “wrong” training left me with a bad back?
While in physical therapy, I decided that since I could not dance right now (and had no idea when I would return to dance), I would hit the gym—and hard. I traded my leotard for athletic wear and hit the weight room. I worked on my chin-ups. I put my time in and began to work steadily. I continued to teach my barre core fitness class at the studio, a class I had created in 2008, a very back-friendly class. If it had not been for this class, I don’t think I would have been functioning fully. Even teaching my cycle class started to feel good again. Things seemed to be improving.
A Moment of Clarity
By February 2010, I was cleared from physical therapy. Snowstorms hit the city and I was out on my block the whole week, shoveling snow and chopping ice. Through it all, my back felt normal again. I began choreographing a challenging piece for my older dancers and decided that I was healed and could start dancing again. I started rehearsing my new piece, and actually performed it with my students one weekend. The next day, my back hurt, but I did not seem to be in too much pain and shrugged it off. I rehearsed the piece again the following week.
Days later I was in agony, collapsed on the bathroom floor and screaming in pain. I could not move for three days. Crippled with pain, I felt as though there was no hope for me. Once I was able to function properly again, I vowed never to have this happen to me again. “The Incident”, as I like to call it now, spurred me to re-evaluate everything I’d been doing. My PT did not know what to do for me. “There is always surgery,” my doctor said to me as I stood in front of her, wincing in pain. A month after the incident, I was back in the gym. But this time, I had a new plan of attack. No more messing around with a little of this and a little of that. No more random thoughts when it came to my workouts. Instead of “working out,” I was going to “train.” I was going to train my body to get strong. I watched my husband go from having to stop and stretch his back every time we took a walk to sleeping with ease on his stomach for the first time in 15 years because of his training. Back issues plague all of us.
The Program….the Solution
My program was simple enough. Six exercises. Six ways to create a strong, healthy body. I started with the king of exercises, the squat. Then I moved on to the bench press, then the deadlift. I saw my numbers quickly go up. I watched my strength improve over time. Next session, I started with the squat again. Then the overhead press. If you want a strong trunk, start pressing heavy weight over your head. You will get strong real fast.
As the weeks went by, I tweaked my program a little and each time I got into the gym, my numbers continued to go up. I continued to get strong. By the end of the summer, I suddenly realized that my back pain was gone. I mean, gone. No more spasms. No more pain down my leg. No more problems driving. I felt like a new woman.
Back pain cripples more of us than we would like to think. Young, old…it does not matter. Back pain is alive and well. We do not move as we once did. We do not move…period. We sit. We sit in the car, at our desks at work, while watching TV, while watching a game. We spend more time on our butts than we do on our legs. And when we don’t use something, we lose it. And when the pain hits us, we go out of our way to fix it. We drag ourselves to the doctor who tells us – “Here is a prescription for physical therapy,” “Take these drugs,” “Get a back brace.” We make an appointment with the acupuncturist because drugs are bad. We drive to the Healthy Back store to buy expensive seat cushions that will help to relieve our pain, help us to sit better in the car as we drive. We drag ourselves to the chiropractor, to physical therapy, to Yoga class, to Pilates.
Instead of looking at the bigger picture – the fact that maybe we are just not strong and if we just picked some heavy things up and put them down every now and again, we would actually get stronger – we try to get better through drugs, acupuncture, chiropractors, back braces, seat cushions. But are we really getting better or are we just fooling ourselves? How is it that all of these so called “strong people” still have back problems? Because they really are not strong. Lifting heavy weights is hard work. It humbles us. But it makes us strong. I am not talking 5 pounds or 10 pounds. I am talking real weight. We should not be proud that we cannot lift the 36 pack of water at BJ’s. We should not be proud that we need to push our carts full of bags to our cars instead of carrying them. We should not be proud that it hurts to get out of our chairs (unless we just finished an intense lifting session…we should be sore!) We have the ability to change our bodies, to make them stronger, by working smarter and yes, harder.
At 36, I am in the best physical shape of my life. I still have not returned to dancing like I used to, but I’ve started to dip my toe into performing again. Other benefits from my training: I teach my dance classes differently; I have more power in my cycle classes; and I have more confidence in my daily life, in how I approach people, how I speak. I am stronger, more powerful, more energized woman.
I have tried acupuncture. I have gone through physical therapy. I have taken drugs. My transformation, my body’s recovery, is not a miracle or a fluke. We all have the ability to change our bodies, to make them stronger by working smarter and harder.
Get stronger. And if you want to change the way you feel, change the way you train.