How to Exercise With a Back Injury
Something that I don’t typically share with people is the fact that I have a back injury. No, not just reoccurring sore lower back from a bad lift, but an actual, serious injury.
A few years ago (actually, it was back in 2012) I was rear ended on the freeway by a pickup truck and was hit so hard that I was the creme in a vehicle version of an Oreo cookie. My little sedan, which was also my first car and one that I had a love/hate relationship with for the few years I had it, was totaled, and the entire engine managed to get wedged underneath the bumper of the car I was shoved into. My hood was basically an accordion.
Following the accident was months of physical therapy to try to help my back pain, which ranged from “damn that really, really hurts” to “I can’t get out of bed” and after about 6 months of going to the doctor 3 times a week, I came to terms with the fact that my back pain was never going to go away.
Well, folks, that’s where Western medicine ends and Eastern medicine comes in. After physical therapy failed to help my back, my mom forced me (yes, literally dragged me) into her long-time trusted acupuncture clinic run by a lovely Korean couple who have known my mom for years (and years and years). While I am not afraid of needles, all I could think of was that scene from Final Destination where the guy ends up flipping off the table and all the long needles get pressed into his body and he dies, and you could probably imagine how afraid I was to possibly die of the same fate.
But let me tell you what back pain is like. You know how helpless you feel when you get a really bad migraine and you literally can’t do anything to ease the pain except for take a few Excedrin and wait for the throbbing to go down? And the pain is this menacing presence that can’t let you take your mind off it? Now imagine this constant, angry headache in your back, this time it has needles and knifes because it wants to cut your spine in half and the pain is more like sawing in-between your disks and into your muscles. The nerves are also pinched, causing your thighs to go numb and no amount of poking and prodding can get them to get feeling back into your legs. And don’t even bother trying to move. Any movement that involves the spine (turning your head, sitting down, walking. etc.) causes sharp, debilitating jolts of pain that basically give you no choice but to lay in bed and never move again.
So I had a choice. Deal with this pain that seemed to have made a permanent addition to my daily life, or give the needles a chance? I mean, what was the worst that could happen (excluding Final Destination death)?
So I went through with it. My first session started with a consultation and soon enough I was laying face-down on a foldable bed similar to what you’d see at a chiropractor’s office. My face was resting in an ovular cushion and I rolled up/down my clothes to expose the injured part of my back. The doctor worked his fingers into each ridge and divot in my back, and I was asked to tell him when I felt anything remotely painful or uncomfortable. Each of these areas were pricked with a needle, which honestly is not painful at all. Your back muscles might spasm for a second when the needle hits, but it’s absolutely normal and you’ll both likely get a good laugh out of your table dance.
Now I’m only going by feeling here, because like I said my face was pressed into a cushion, but what it FEELS like he’s doing is taking the needle, aiming at the precise targeted location, and just takes his finger and flicks the end of it so that it pops into the skin and takes hold. Then he pinches the end and works the needle just a little deeper by twisting it between his fingers until it gets deep enough to hit muscle. This sounds horrifying, but it’s nothing.
Once all the needles were placed, he rolled over a machine that looked like a blood pressure monitor but all I could see were the wheels so who knows what it actually looks like. He attaches little nodes on the end of a couple of the needles (like you would when you need to jump start a car), and turns on the machine. The nodes send mini pulses of electricity through the needle to the muscle, but these were not painful at all. Don’t think you’re getting tazed or anything. It’s more like a phone vibration in a slow, methodical pulse in your muscle. He also placed a heating lamp over my exposed back and left me with the machine for about 30 minutes. I fell asleep.
When those 30 minutes were up, he came back and removed the pulsinator (yep, I just made that a word) and all the needles, but I wasn’t done. Then it was his wife’s turn to do some work on me. She was in charge of the suction cups. You have probably heard about cupping as it’s recently become quite popular on social media. This was basically the same thing, except no cool flames and glass balls on my back.
She had this contraption that looked like Dr. Octavius from Spiderman and Davy Jones from PotC had a machine-child. About 10-15 rounded silicone balls were attached to a single machine by flexible accordion cords, and each ball was placed on my back and hand pumped to suck the air out. It’s the more efficient, less instagrammable version of cupping. The cups will draw some blood and other toxins out of your skin. It’s not painful, and feels quite nice.
Once the cupping was done, she helped me sit up and adjust my clothes, and then walked me out front. I felt better, but the results aren’t instant. She suggested I sleep on it and give her a call the next day if I felt better, and we could schedule another appointment if necessary.
The next day, I got out of bed feeling the best I had ever felt in MONTHS. I was so excited to be able to brush my teeth without cringing and sit at the table without having to ease myself into a seated position like I was 80 years old. I called the clinic immediately after breakfast and scheduled my next appointment for the following day. After 3 total sessions of the same process (I probably didn’t need the third session but I wanted to make sure that the pain was really gone) my back didn’t bother me anymore. Three sessions of acupuncture did what six months (72 sessions) of physical therapy couldn’t.
Notice, though, that I didn’t say it healed me. My back is not healed, and I still occasionally get a little tingle and numbness in my thighs, and bad form in my workouts can still occasionally cause me quite a bit of pain. I once triggered the pain by sneezing while clipping my toenails (really), and the pain was so bad it took me three hours to get dressed and head out the door. Luckily I was able to walk into an acupuncture clinic and get treated the same day. I have only needed acupuncture three times since I first did it in 2012. So the pain is very rare, but not completely gone.
Exercising, especially weight lifting, has triggered the other two incidents that required a visit to the acupuncturist. This is one of the reasons why trainers always stress that good form is crucial to preventing injuries.
Some of the things I incorporate into my fitness to prevent back pain are:
Strengthen your core. Planks, yoga, no arching/hunching when doing deadlifts - having a strong core is the biggest and best way to prevent back injuries because it takes the strain off your back muscles.
Strengthening your back. Supermans, back extensions, foam rolling any tightness - the foam roller is my back’s best friend. I roll my back if I ever feel any discomfort.
Listen to your body. You’ve probably heard this, but it’s so easy to ignore this one. The most recent flare up of my back injury was because of this. I was doing kettlebell swings with a 15lb weight, and I was aiming to do 2 sets of 20 swings. When I started on my second set, I felt my back start to tire, and dismissed it as muscle fatigue and finished my set. Well, that was a mistake, because just a few hours later my back was in terrible, agonizing pain and I honestly have not touched a kettlebell since.
Stretch. Proper warm up and cool downs as well. Stretching is so important and I’ll admit that I don’t do it as much as I should, but it’s really important if you want to take care of your body.
I hope this post was helpful! If you’re thinking about trying acupuncture or cupping for any kind of pain or alternative to physical therapy, I highly recommend it. I will not do anything else for my injuries it’s that good. If you’re trying to prevent an injury from getting worse, or if you think you might be starting to develop an injury, please take care of yourself and strengthen your body, stretch, and always listen to what your body is trying to tell you.