"I hurt my back.... while sleeping."
This is what a friend texted me the other morning. I shook my head and sighed. I realized it wasn't that long ago that I could have sent a similar text.
I first injured my back in a water skiing accident when I as in my 20s. For nearly a decade and despite months of physical therapy, I would inevitably end up in the Emergency Room, unable to move and in total agony. My storyline never changed. I was fine, or so I thought until I bent down to pick up something as light as a pen, a piece of paper or I woke up, like my friend, and did something to my back or neck while sleeping. Bottom line, I hadn't fully recovered... some 10 years later.
Looking back, I was in a vicious cycle of injury/re-injury and recovery-ish. That is, I never fully recovered from the last time I tweaked my back in some way. Thus, the cycle of pain followed by medication to alleviate the back pain and some exercises to help manage the pain would begin.... again. This type of treatment mainly consisted of a cortisone shot or two to the affected area, which at one point included my hip as I was later diagnosed with bursitis. I would be encouraged to use ice and heat and light massage and then after a few weeks, begin a regimen of exercises to help improve range of motion. I did all of this, each time, for about 6 weeks and then I would go back to my life, which included lots of walking and sitting and doing an hour or so on the elliptical or even taking a few low impact classes at the gym every week.
A Cautious Tale
While my doctor never prescribed "avoidance of activities," he also said I should treat my back as if it's not 100% healed. He said I should consider my back -- even at it's best -- to be at 80% of what it used to be. My challenge was that, after awhile, I forgot what life was like before my water skiing accident. I felt as though I was in a perpetual state of recovery.
Thus, I did what I could to avoid situations that might exasperate my symptoms. I avoided long car rides or hours of any kind of sitting or standing or even walking as that put a lot of pressure on my lumbar spine. But at that time, we also lived in a third-floor walk up. In some ways, I did a lot of lifting - kids, groceries, and bags - up and down three flights of stairs a couple of times, every day.
What I didn't know was that bracing my core, squeezing my butt, keeping my shoulders down and back would help me avoid further injury. Also, I didn't train for any of this: That is, I didn't lift weights at the gym in order to help protect my joints from taking such heavy loads. Even though I walked everywhere, when I went to the gym, I would inevitably walk/run on the treadmill or spend an hour on the elliptical. It never occurred to me to lift weights so as to improve and build muscular strength. I had never heard of functional fitness exercises or compound movements that require your upper and lower body to work in unison to lift, bend, twist and reach.
Since 2011, I have focused on learning to lift weights. As a result, I have been pain-free for 5 years. Just this past spring, I bought six trees, each weighed about 80 pounds. Not only did I dig the holes, but I carried the trees from my van and planted each of them into the ground. Later that same summer, I sanded and painted my back deck and three rooms inside my house. I now move furniture easily,
Further Reducing My Risk
When I am not working (at my desk), I am keeping up with my three boys, playing sports, as well as cleaning the house and doing laundry. While the latter two are not among my favorite physical activities, it is a way to keep moving when weather or other time constraints make running, swimming or biking unlikely. I am not held back by any pain but this doesn't mean that I am reckless. I consider myself to be temporarily able.
I am, in some ways, more cautious about my body today than I was when I was in pain or recovery. I am focused on how I am supposed to move in order to protect my back and keep my joints healthy. I also focus more now on what I eat and drink. Since my 13-year-old son became a vegetarian, I have learned a lot about nutrition, including healthy sources of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Also, I'm focused on reducing or eliminating added sugars and alcohol. Don't get me wrong, I love a glass of good red wine, but I consider it a treat much like a good piece of chocolate. Here's why.
"There is new research to suggest that even just one alcoholic drink a day might raise premenopausal women's risk for breast cancer by 5 percent (9 percent for women postmenopause," according to an article published in Oxygenmag.com.
The researchers noted that vigorous exercise, such as running and fast biking, appears to have a protective effect.
"The most active pre-menopausal women had a 10 percent lower risk. "Exercise can lower insulin and some blood markers of inflammation in women of any age," says Anne McTiernan, M.D. Ph.D., lead author, and cancer prevention researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. "These markers are related to breast cancer risk."
While I know plenty of women who exercise daily and some like me, who are really active, I am nonetheless, very humbled by this latest research on breast cancer. I will continue to focus on living each day to the fullest by eating healthy and ensuring I am physically active for at least 30 minutes a day.
What Did I Text Back to My Friend
Like many of us, who face a day of sitting at our desks, I strongly encouraged him to move around and do some light stretches. I suggested he try to stand every 30 minutes during the day and walk around a bit. Even while seated, I encouraged him to roll his ankles and wiggle his legs. Lastly, I advised him to sleep with a pillow between his knees, if he was a side sleeper and then one under his knees, if he preferred to sleep on his back. The added pillow helps keep his spinal column in neutral position, eliminating pressure on the lumbar spine.
Long-term, I told him to move more and to learn to lift weights. Work with a trainer, take a class, read about how strength training, but do something to help increase his daily physical activity, which has a protective effect against so many diseases. I added that unless there was trauma to the body or there is an underlying disease, the pain from normal movement often involves two factors -- lack of strength and lack of flexibility or muscle tightness. The very act of reaching for something -- up high or down low or twisting - involves his body working in near perfect unison. That is, it requires certain joints to be stable while others are mobile and that balance occurs when there is both strength and flexibility in the muscles.
Just as I did that morning with my class, I texted him a few pictures of some of my students doing some exercises to help with tight hamstrings and glutes. Here's one of those.
Go Ahead Put Your Feet On the Wall
After clearing a space on the floor and wall above, sit down sideways with your butt right next to the wall and swung your legs up - perpendicular to your torso. Keeping your butt down and legs straight, with feet flat on the wall. His legs, specifically his hamstrings and Gluteus Maximus, were really tight. With a piece of rope fixed around the middle part of his flexed foot, I told him to gently pull back his leg until he felt a nice stretch. Next, cross his left leg over her right knee and then switch sides. The further he moves the extended leg down the wall, the deeper the stretch in the butt and hamstrings.
This exercise is aptly named Figure 4 on the Wall. Thanks for reading.
In good health,