A few weeks ago I shared my Respiration Rescue strategies after having had an MRI that revealed a bulging disc in my lower back between L4 and L5. The purpose of this article is to provide some things you can do to reduce back pain, and these will have some applicability to pain in other areas too. But first, I want to answer the question I keep getting (or the one people want to ask, but don’t) - how did this happen? How did someone who teaches healthy movement patterns, and safe lifting technique end up hurting her low back?!
Flashback to the good old pre-pandemic days of early fall 2019. I dropped a pencil on the ground, bent over to pick it up, and boom! I had never in my life had low back discomfort, or even tightness prior to that moment, and now suddenly there was this stabbing pain unlike anything I’d felt before. I forced myself to stand up instead of hobbling away in a hunched position because I was actually at the gym coaching at the time.
The fact that I stood up, and kept walking around was a really good thing, and the pain dissipated over the next few hours. Hindsight is 20/20, and what I should have done at this point is visited my chiropractor to check in and get some insight as to what might have happened - especially since this was something I’d never experienced before. If I had, I probably could have recovered in months instead of years.
He would have told me that the injury sounds like a disc problem, and that I needed to get imaging to confirm this. When I cried, “But how could this happen to ME???”, he would have told me that disc issues are very common, can happen to anyone, and often come from out of the blue. All of which did happen eventually, just a lot later than it should have.
Instead, I kept on doing my normal training and made no adjustments to my lifestyle. After the first few days of this initial injury, I didn’t feel any pain, so I just assumed it was a fluke and I basically forgot about it. In late 2019, I competed in the Tactical Strength Challenge, and a powerlifting meet and I was feeling really strong and really good.
Fast forward to early March 2020. Caleb and I are doing an after-hours training session together at Breakthrough. I got underneath a barbell, started to back squat and my back said - no more! This time the pain was crippling and I had to have Caleb help me up.
I spent the next several days forcing myself to keep moving in gentle ways, and rolling with the Yoga Tune Up balls, and I was able to relieve quite a bit of the pain. I got myself so that I could walk around and go about my business, and I promised myself that as soon as I could, I would take some time off and get this back issue checked out. I just needed to get through the next few weeks…
My sister and Coach RT had just welcomed our sweet nephew Henry into the world, and he would be back from paternity leave at the end of March. I had a two day business mastermind to attend, and we were wrapping up the final weeks of our Best Life Challenge that was culminating with a retreat in Lake Arrowhead. Once all this was behind me, it would be time for some serious self-care. But we all know what happened next.
As we were heading down the mountain and back into Los Angeles after the retreat, everyone’s phones started to blow up with the news that we were heading into a Pandemic lockdown. For the first several months we were doing zoom check ins, and daily workouts on Facebook live. The vast majority of people at home didn’t have barbells or even heavier kettlebells, so the workouts we were leading were primarily bodyweight and light weights. This was the only training we were doing at the time, so my back actually didn’t bother me too much during this period simply because I’d lightened the loads by a considerable amount.
I also just didn’t really think about it that much because of everything else that was going on at the time. As time progressed and things returned more and more to normal, my back pain also progressed. But since there were more stressful and pressing matters, I basically conditioned myself over the course of a couple of years to ignore my pain. Which brings me to the main purpose of this article - three things you can do RIGHT NOW to help yourself reduce pain.
1. Don’t Ignore Pain - Pain is a stop signal. Pain is your body letting you know something isn’t right and you need to pay attention. As a coach I’ve reminded clients of this a multitude of times, but it’s not so simple to put into practice. For example, it’s a relatively simple task for me to put together a pain-free training program for myself, but the hours I spend training are maybe 3 to 4% of the total hours in my week.
Everyday I would push through the pain to accomplish tasks because “it just needs to get done”. Or I’d find myself feeling discomfort and think “that’s just how it is.” Or I’d make the choice to do something that in my gut I knew I shouldn’t do because “I’m going to be in pain no matter what I do, so I may as well just do what I want.” Or I’d tell myself, “eventually this will go away on its own.” I was definitely hearing my body tell me it hurt, and I was definitely ignoring it.
Not only was I not allowing my body to heal, I was sensitizing myself to be in pain. In the beginning, I would only feel pain if I moved a certain way or pushed too hard. Over time it took less and less for me to feel pain because I was conditioning myself for more and more pain sensitivity. As time went on, I was basically in pain most of the time, in large part because I expected to be.
2. Take responsibility for what you can change - Even with the help of a great medical team, doing the proper physical therapy, and avoiding certain movements in my training, I realized that I needed to take massive responsibility for things I was doing everyday that were causing pain and not allowing healing to take place. I made a commitment to myself that if something I was doing was hurting, I would stop and try to find another way to accomplish that task. If I cannot find a way to do something pain-free, I don’t do that thing - at least not right now.
I’ve had to switch up how I drive, how I sit on the couch, and how I do basic household tasks. One of the biggest things for back pain is sitting - absolutely nothing puts more pressure on the discs of your spine than sitting. So even with the best support and posture possible, I don’t sit for more than 30 minutes at a time. I’ve typed this entire article standing up. These switch ups have been frustrating and time consuming, I won’t lie. But within days of committing to taking responsibility in this way, I reduced my back pain by at least 60%, so I’d say it’s worth it!
3. Find as many pain-free ways to move as you can - In my first meeting with my sports medicine doctor, he kept stressing how important it is to keep moving, and look for ways to increase movement throughout your day. Even for someone like me who has a more active job than most, there are still several days a week that I end up doing quite a bit of computer work and need to make it a habit to move more. The key is, you have to find pain-free ways to move of course.
When you are in pain, and have sensitized yourself to that as I had, it’s hard to think of ways to move that don’t hurt. I had conditioned myself to believe everything hurt, but it wasn’t true. Following the guidance of the world’s leading spine bio-mechanist Dr. Stu McGill in his book Back Mechanic (a MUST read for anyone experiencing back pain) I started making a list of all the things I can do pain-free, and it didn’t take much time for the list to get much bigger than I had led myself to believe.
Not only does this give me more options for moving, it helps re-train my overly heightened pain sensitivity. Before you dismiss this, understand this is science. Our muscles and joints are filled with different types of sensors, including pain sensors, that send information through the nerves to the brain. They can only send so much information at once, so whatever is dominating the sensory nerves will get sent. The more pain-free signals we can send, the more we can heal and teach our brains and bodies that getting out of pain is an option. This is important information also for those that tend to do less ignoring of pain like I was doing, but fixate on it instead.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is what Dr. McGill has to say: “Along the highway of nerves there are checkpoints, or ‘gates’ at junctions. According to the Gate Theory of Pain, the idea is to flood the checkpoint with ‘good information’, in other words signals associated with pain-free movements. In this way there is no more room for the pain signals as they are crowded out. Finding and repeating pain-free motions in your back will cause the remaining painful activities to hurt less. Read the previous sentence again - it really is that important.”
I’m not sharing any specifics here in terms of exercises I’m doing, because if you are having back pain, or any other type of pain, you need to go to a medical professional for a diagnosis. But these three “general” guidelines won’t conflict with any rehab program, and will support whatever recovery strategy your medical team recommends.
Strength & Love, Kati
PS. If you are curious about what I’m doing for my recovery, I’m sharing a whole bunch on my personal Instagram (@katiterray) and Facebook. And if you are looking for a FREE and easy way to get more movement in with the support of a team - I’d love for you to join us in the Made to Move Challenge!