It was January 2017 when I first felt the pinch in my lower back. Ironically, I was visiting my Dad in the hospital after his back surgery. If you know my Dad, Stu Ball, you know that he is one of the funniest, most intuitive, kind people you’ll ever meet. You probably also know he is stubborn as a motha’. Less than 48 hours post surgery he decided he was ready to take a stroll around the hospital. I was equal parts anxious and excited to see him up and moving so quickly. That was short lived. He stopped in his tracks and went down. Hard. Since I’m not an a-hole, my knee jerk reaction was to catch him. He’s a man of small stature, but when a grown man loses his balance and hits the deck, it’s not something you want to dead lift.
I unsuccessfully tried to break his fall. This story would have been so much cooler to tell if I could tell you he didn’t hit the ground. Turned out he was ok and no real damage was done from this fall. A few minutes later I felt a dull ache in my back. I’ve had ongoing back problems for as long as I can remember, so this wasn’t so alarming. I’ve spent years navigating mild back pain previous to this instance. However, this was the first time I had felt this specific pain and the first time I had issues with my low back. The next few days I got progressively more sore, so I turned to old faithful; RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation).
The next few months would prove to be a roller coaster of pain and recovery for both of us.
For the most part, I was not in excruciating pain, but I had to occasionally sit the gym out or lay on the ice pack. In March of 2017, though, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I woke up one morning and the pain was so intense I could not walk. I managed to crawl my way to a chair in our bedroom and sat there in pain for what seemed like days trying to find a position that didn’t hurt. My husband Josh eventually convinced me to go to Urgent Care.
At this point in the story, I am going to summarize the unsuccessful attempts I made to feel better. I saw my doctor regularly. I got the runaround more than once and heard things like “most females experience back pain” and “you could lose 10 lbs and see if that helps.” I also heard varying opinions such as “you have significant swelling of your SI joint that’s causing the pain” and also “there is no swelling whatsoever.”
I had my kind husband rub my back every night. I saw an acupuncturist that determined after my third visit that acupuncture wasn’t the answer (which I am grateful for, as opposed to just taking my money). I saw a salesman/chiropractor that painted a daunting picture of my spine turning into mush. I went to what I call “drive-thru physical therapy.” I was prescribed a physical therapy routine based on the lower back pain database and not on my personal experience. I got massages once a month. I got a mattress topper that was supposed to be more supportive. I stretched every night before bed. I will say some of these things did help a bit with muscle tension but were short term (and expensive) solutions. So, there I was, out about $3,000 and still in pain.
Through all of my trials, all I wanted was a why. Why does my back hurt so much? Why is the pain unpredictable? Why do I sometimes have no pain at all? Someone just. Tell. Me. Why!! I figured if I had a reason, I could make peace with my situation or begin to heal my body more effectively.
Anyone that suffers with chronic pain knows that the effect it has on mental health is significant. I would feel like I was getting better only to find myself in pain again and feel like there was no hope. I completely stopped exercising and worried I would never again have the biceps I worked hard for leading up to my wedding. I would feel bad for myself, get annoyed and say F it and push myself too hard, and ultimately end up back in frustration town again. The cycle of chronic pain can be mentally exhausting as much as physically.
After having to take ten personal days due to back pain, I was fed up. I was a generally healthy thirty year old and feeling like I was living in the body of someone at least twice my age. I started thinking more broadly about my pain. I started drawing parallels to my diet, my stress level, and my overall well-being. I did some digging and learned that eliminating certain food groups like gluten, sugar, legumes and dairy can help with chronic pain.
In May of 2017 I did my first round of the Whole30. After the thirty days I had was not completely pain-free but I had noticed a significant reduction in pain. Since then, I have completed three more rounds and several mini resets.
I am not cured by any stretch of the word. I have to pay very close attention to what I’m eating and how I’m moving everyday. I see a chiropractor often to get adjustments and address the body’s tendency to default to being off balance. I also make a point to foam roll my back and legs daily to keep everything loose. But, I know now that the food I eat has A LOT to do with chronic pain. In the past few weeks I’ve gone out to eat with friends and family more often than usual and have had more sugar than I usually eat. Cue the back pain. Like clockwork, I know I can count on my back pain to flare up if I have too much gluten and sugar. I also know right away when I’m dehydrated because my pain comes back full force. And sometimes, it comes back for no reason at all. Chronic pain is a rough water to navigate.
It can be easy to look at Instagram, talk to different health professionals, or read other blogs and decide I will be cured if I follow their lead. What all of these venues fail to consider (for the most part) is the individual experience.
What works for me may not work for my neighbor. It takes a lot of paying attention to figure out exactly what that means.
My new normal is a predominantly paleo diet with some high-quality dairy in order to feel my best and avoid the familiar pinch in my back. This method isn’t foolproof for pain, but if nothing else, I’m living a healthier life than I was a year ago and I’m more aware of my own body and how I choose to treat it.
I have slowly reincorporated exercise. I have to do this very cautiously because more than once I have found myself back at square one if I push too hard. Even doing yoga or walking can still sometimes be too much. Paying attention to my core strength and back body has helped reduce pain. I incorporate yoga and Pilates every week and do some body weight exercises for strength, but I give myself grace when it just doesn’t serve me. The most important shift in my thinking is the acceptance that I do not have to exercise everyday. Maybe someday I’ll be in a place that I can engage in rigorous exercise more days than not, but that day is not today. Once I started listening to my body and the feedback I was getting from what I considered to be healthy movement, I learned to be ok with where I am today.
Now, I sit and reflect on this experience in April 2018, more than a year later than my original injury. Luckily, my Dad has made a long but successful recovery from his surgery and I am on the path to being pain-free or at least have an idea how to manage my pain. It’s easy to throw myself a full blown pity party some days when I see friends that never have to think about what they eat, how they move, or wonder if they’ll be able to get out of bed. But, then, I pause and think about the lessons I’ve learned in this past year. I realize I sound like an old maid here talking about the lessons learned, but it’s true. In the past year I have found a passion in nutrition and health I didn’t know existed within me. I have learned so much about my own body and have started to chip away at what health looks like for me. And, hello! I started a blog about the whole thing! How fun is that?!
One of the hardest things in life is to understand why things happen. A year ago, I desperately wanted a why. I wanted to know why my back hurt like it did. I never did get my diagnosis, but I did get my why. I am a healthier version of the person I was a year ago because of an injury that took place in a matter of seconds. We’ve all heard of the butterfly effect. This one moment ended up triggering change in my life.
Whether we face medical issues, get laid off from our jobs, or end a relationship, we’re often left wondering what the lesson in it all is. Some days, it just feels like a real pain in the ass or a coincidence that we’re dealt the cards we have. But, if we learn to lean into our experiences we may find that there’s a purpose or a lesson to be learned. The problem is, lessons don’t always scream and wave at you when they arrive. Sometimes you have to look extra carefully to figure out why you’re going through what you’re going through. As my mom always tells me, this too shall pass. Nothing is permanent. Sometimes when we face hardships, we don’t know how we’ve survived or if it’s even over. One thing is for certain however, when we face personal challenges, we most often come out on the other side as a stronger more powerful version of ourselves.