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Posts Tagged ‘back pain’

PostHeaderIcon How I Cured My Muscle Pain

I always loved fitness, but the one thing that motivated me to become a professional more than anything else was pain. I remember my physical therapist telling me that I was too young to have back pain and if I wasn’t careful, my spine would just keep getting damaged. He didn’t tell me what being careful entailed. Does being careful mean staying in bed and never running again or lifting my baby boy again? I loved to run and I honestly wondered if I would ever be able to do it ever again.

I had no idea what was causing the pain, but having a background in mindfulness made me look back at all the times in my life when my back was healthy. Coincidentally, these were the times that I was consistently fit. The times when my back was in the worst shape were the times when I was the least fit or had a sit down job. Since all other health options weren’t working, I decided to get fit again. This was not easy. I had a bad back. I started by just doing my physical therapy and some low impact cardio like walking or light aerobics. After a while, the pain subsided but it still came and went. It turned out I had two degenerated discs in my lower back. The best advice anyone could give me was a physical therapist who was also a pilates instructor. She told me to keep moving and stay fit. She said if I wasn’t opting for surgery, my best bet was to strengthen the muscles that protect my spine.

What made the back pain permanently vanish? Well, that’s quite a journey. I became a fitness expert. I learned how muscles and bones worked. I learned that there were specific muscles in my core, hips and even shoulders that weren’t working right. For example, my tight shoulders caused me to have to overly arch my back in order to stand up straight. I can now spot this in my clients or students instinctively. Sure, I was told I had degenerated discs in my lumbar spine but re-establishing mobility in my tight shoulders took a huge burden off my back.

Some muscles of my hips were much more flexible or stronger than others. In fact, it turned out I had a very strong core but was overcompensating, using my back to do all the work because I had weaknesses in my legs and butt. My core wasn’t weak. It was overburdened by taking all the weight my hips couldn’t bare. I also had very tight hip flexors which pulled on my back.

I want to share this with you because I’ve seen a trend in our health care system. Insurance companies only pay therapists to work on the “one” body part that needs it. So, if your back is in pain because you have tight shoulders, you’ll get a lot of therapy for your lower back when you should be opening your shoulders. This is only an example. My knowledge in corrective exercise has taught me that it could be your feet causing pain in your knees, hips or even back, yet our health system is structured to focus on one muscle group at a time.

I was surprised when my son’s pediatrician told me that they don’t refer out people with pronated or “flat” feet to physical therapists. They just suggest orthotics. When I became a corrective exercise specialist, I learned how to re-build the arches of the foot. The reason why feet go flat is because they are out of shape. Walking in shoes and on flat surfaces with no variety has caused the arches of our feet to atrophy. Much like sitting in chairs all day can atrophy the muscles of our back, most of our chronic muscle pain is due to inactivity more than anything. Wearing special shoes or a back brace is like leaning on a cructh. You’re relying on an external object to make up for your own weakness. There are exercises you can do to fix muscular skelatal problems.

Unfortunately, like obesity, the greatest cure can’t be taken overnight. If you have surgery, it might cure a skeletal issue but if you don’t keep your muscles strong, that part of your body will just get re-injured. If you use liposuction to suck out your fat, but continue to eat more than you are burning, that fat will creep back on. The only pharmaceutical drugs prescribed to lose weight only work along with “diet and exercise”. We can cleanse the damage we do to our heart, blood and organs by detoxing on a high vegetable diet, but if we go back to our old way of eating, those problems come right back. We need to start getting real about how we maintain our health.

These days I’m back to doing all the things I love. I run, practice martial arts, jump and hike. But I also keep up a steady practice of muscle strengthening and stretching. The frailty of old age happens when we lose muscle and bone but all of this can be prevented if we take proper care of ourselves. My job requires me to be in top athletic condition and I sometimes get little tweeks in my knees, or other joints, but the good news is that I know what to do if these obstacles arise and they are usually ironed out in a few days. I’m currently in the best shape of my life because I’ve taken the time to address my weaknesses and work out smart.

A lot of people come to me after class, asking about their aches and pains, so I’m having a workshop specifically on corrective exercise in September. If you are interested in taking this workshop, click here for more info.

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PostHeaderIcon What Pain Has Taught Me

I was able to move through my childhood unscathed. Maybe a scratch or bruise here and there, shin splints or a pulled groin muscle that healed eventually. There was that minor concussion after full contact sparring when I used to do kung fu. Actually, maybe I did get injured more than I thought I did but when we’re young, you bounce back and tend to forget. Then we get our first chronic injury, the one that keeps coming back to haunt us. That happened the first time I hurt my lower back. I didn’t even know why or how it happened. These days, I have a good idea but I had to experience chronic pain before I could understand some of the underlying causes that we often overlook. I was barely 21 or 22 when the chronic back pain started and I remember thinking that I had finally gotten old and that it might be down hill from then on. At the age of 22, I thought that I had reached old age. These days, I see teenagers who look like they had already reached the end of their lives, backs hunched over from texting and video games and I now know that injuries have nothing to do with age. It could happen anytime to anyone.

The first thing I learned about injuries and pain is that it doesn’t have to be caused by specific trauma like a car accident. The pain can just start unbeknownst to us. We have no idea where it came from or why its there. It could have been caused by mental or emotional stress, a lack of sleep or recovery, overuse; or it may have been there for months but we were too pent up on adrenaline, caffeine or pain killers to notice. Then one day, we can’t hide from it anymore and the pain makes itself known.

My back pain recurred many times in my life, before I made the choice to commit myself to fitness and keep my core healthy for good. It came back again after I worked in an office. Maybe it was sitting in a chair all day that did it. The lower back would get so swollen and I would need to see a therapist or chiropractor but I had no idea why it would become inflamed and lock up on me. It occurred again after giving birth to  my son and that was the worst because it actually took me a few years to recover from that. The pain went away in a few months but my back would still bother me if I sat for too long or witness most forms of stressed. Training myself to be strong and athletic again, despite my weak link was an experimental journey that involved fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of being too weak, fear of resting it and not making it stronger, fear that making it stronger would be too much and finally the faith that came with believing that it will get better. I also hurt my knees and that took about a year or more to recover. This happened when I was teaching over 30 classes a week. My knees became worn down and I finally stopped teaching Zumba.

So I know what its like to be teetering on the edge of wanting to do something and wanting to not do something about our pain. We don’t know when we should be resting or when we should be building. Some people heal up after finally finding the right regimen, some never do and just accept their chronic pain. Some of us rest too much and allow ourselves to atrophy, others pound away at the injury, doing everything they can to strengthen their bodies when they should have just rested that area all along. We all heal at different levels and, unfortunately all the technology we have can’t always detect exactly what we should be doing. A lot of times it has more to do with how we stand, sit, sleep, think and eat.

Despite all the suffering I felt, I have to admit that being injured is one of the best things that has happened to me (knock on wood). I’m grateful because it taught me mindfulness. It made me realize that healing is not as easy as some people make it out to be. I also learned that healing modalities such as yoga, tai chi, pilates etc. may work or may worsen an injury and you have to figure out what is best for you. It also made me realize the true meaning of mind body. It isn’t taking a power yoga class because you want to look like a hot, new age chick in a bikini. The initiation of yoga and pilates into conventional gyms have changed the original mind body approach of these modalities. Yoga is meditation. It’s learning the body’s limits and strengths. We breath and move with awareness so we can learn what works and what doesn’t. Bringing conscious awareness into how we move helps us understand ourselves. It helps us to gauge if we are doing too much or too little, if our soreness is healthy or a sign that we are doing something incorrectly or abusively. This kind of awareness is priceless.

Injuries have taught me to be deeper, to make my work outs an internal art, to meditate, to incorporate mindfulness, mental illumination and emotional reflection into my healthy lifestyle. I have learned to consciously engage smaller muscles that I never knew were there before. My search for a pain free life has opened me up to many ways of thinking and moving and has empowered me to share with others. No one’s body is the same. We all have different sized limbs and muscles but the more we understand, the more empowered we become.

Pain has taught me that I’m not immortal and has driven in me the lesson that I am no better than anyone else. This, I believe, is a good thing because it is the ego that creates judgment, hostility, dictatorships and oppressiveness. Pain has taught me compassion and empathy and these traits are the heart of love.

If you find yourself having to deal with pain, please read my post on the steps you should take in case of an injury:

What To Do In Case of an Injury

Do understand that there is no one panacea for pain. The best advice I can give in our quest for a cure is to be mindful. Pain is just a loud message your brain is sending you that something is not right. It may take you a while to understand the message but the search for an answer will help you in all aspects of your life. The pain may be a call to solve a problem you have been ignoring for far too long. Often, its a bad relationship, job or situation. Sometimes its just the way we have been treating body. Pay attention.  It may be a call to learn more about your body and mind so you can live a fuller or deeper life. Humble yourself and listen.

Here I am with my son turning 40 years old, and feeling less pain now than I did when I was in my 20s.

 

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