I’ll never forget that day I was walking home from school in 5th grade…that is walking on my hands on the sidewalk. After about 15 feet into it, I suddenly felt my elbows quiver, and then WHAM! I face-planted right into the sidewalk and skinned my cheekbone! I had the ugliest wound on my face for weeks and it was so embarrassing having to explain to anyone who asked what happened to me. As my parents always told me, I was a tomboy, a wild child and just constantly on the move!
My highly-energetic self took years of gymnastics and step aerobics classes from high school on, then I became a certified step instructor. I created my own strength training & cardio routines and dabbled a little into running, completing a few 5K races. I naturally gravitated towards yoga in my early 20s, and Pilates a few years later. I always felt deeply connected with physical movement and breathing, and enjoyed the mental health benefits too. I didn’t even know that I would one day become a physical therapist, spending the rest of my career analyzing biomechanics and treating musculoskeletal issues with rehab exercises!
Fast forward into my 30s, where I was working in a Pilates studio earning hours towards my advanced Pilates certification. I had been fully devoting my daily schedule to practicing Pilates, yoga, weight lifting, running, parenting kids, running a private practice and treating dozens of patients with manual therapy and therapeutic Pilates. I knew I might be overdoing it, but had no choice other than to ignore the dull nagging pain in my lower back because life was just too demanding!
And then I sneezed. I felt an electric shock from my back shooting into my hips and felt sudden weakness in my legs. I could barely hold up my own body weight and couldn’t walk. I knew instantly that I had a bulging disc. I had already treated hundreds of people with bulging discs and now I was going to have to be a patient! I couldn’t believe it. How did I get to this point? Well, I knew it wasn’t just the sneeze alone…it took years of cumulative stress on my body, which likely started with those backfips, tailbone injuries, birthing a couple of kids, running a few races, teaching step aerobics and just trying to keep up with my busy life.
The remedy for my back injury was not to do more exercises. It was actually quite the opposite: I needed to slow down. I was over-training and my body could no longer take it. So I had to go through the painstaking process of resting. Resting? What was that? How could one be productive, meet goals, raise a family, survive in a competitive market of healthcare and make a living by resting?
I quickly realized that without a healed spine, there would be no more business to run and my home would fall apart. I had to start eliminating activities that seemed healthy, but were actually harming me. My focus shifted towards 100% spine health and spine care. I became my own patient and healed myself through journaling my rehabilitation, my symptoms, my lifestyle, my moods, my medications, my diet, my sleep, my relationships and my spiritual health. Everything was way out of balance and it became clear what I needed to do.
I had yet to be introduced to Dr. Ginger Garner, the pioneer of Medical Therapeutic Yoga™ which didn’t happen until 6 years later and here I was almost practicing her Method. It was taking a Biopsychosocial approach to medicine, focusing not only my physical need for healing, but also my emotional, social, spiritual and mental need for restoration. I had to evaluate why I was pouring so much time and energy into the things I did. Was I supporting my most important core values and enforcing healthy boundaries…or was I over-scheduling myself to the absolute limit?
As I went through my own rehabilitation journey, I took the necessary time of 3 months to get manual physical therapy, progressive spine rehabilitation, evaluate what I was doing and how I could make my life a little less exhausting. I outlined my top priorities and eliminated anything that was competing for my precious time. I restored my spiritual, emotional and social needs in addition to my physical healing. It was absolutely the best thing for me…and further deepened my empathy for my patients as I would experience first-hand what it was like to endure severe pain and temporary disability.
HOW TO LIVE PAIN-FREE:
- Pay attention to your breath. Can you breathe using your belly vs. your chest? Train yourself to belly breathe so that you maximize oxygen, increase lung capacity, and effectively lower your stress levels (sympathetic nervous system response) by using the diaphragm, which stimulates the vagus nerve (rest, relax, digest- parasympathetic nervous system response).
- Meditate everyday. Spend the first 10 minutes every morning being quiet. Practice your abdominal breathwork during this time, focus on and set an intention for the day. Resist the temptation to look at emails, click on social media apps, or engage in robust conversation when you first wake up- you’ll just end up hitting the ground running. Just be still. You may be surprised how much more grounded you feel for the entire day!
- Stop ignoring the pain. Tune into your body. Notice pain or odd symptoms when you’re exercising or doing daily activities. Address it with a physical therapist or medical provider and be sure you’re not worsening a condition that could be preventable. If you find yourself needing to take medications for pain relief for more than 7 consecutive days and you haven’t had a particular injury or surgery, then it’s time to seek medical help.
- Cut out or modify activities that cause cumulative joint & spine compression. For some of you who are overly-active, that means reducing your cardio workouts from 6x/week to 3x/week. For others who are more sedentary, that means changing your prolonged sitting habits and adding in a daily walking routine or buying a stand-up desk. Certain activities and postures increase joint and spine compression and you need to be educated on how to prevent this with body mechanics training.
- Eat healthy foods. Limit highly inflammatory foods like concentrated carbohydrates, sugar, white breads or grains, alcoholic beverages, hydrogenated oils and unhealthy fats. Your diet plays a very significant role in systemic pain and inflammation!
- Get Restorative Sleep. Make the effort to create a successful environment for you to get at least 7 hours of sleep every night. This is the only way your body and brain can heal and restore itself. Plug in your cell phone or tablet in the kitchen, use blackout drapes or wear an eye mask and ear plugs or use a Dohm white noise machine.
- Do mindful movement exercises consistently. Medical Therapeutic Yoga™ will create a deep sense of stabilization and balance in the body by training you to breathe well, move well, and educate you on how to modify movements for conditions such as arthritis, stenosis or osteoporosis. This disciplined movement practice will improve your neuromuscular patterns and increase interoception, your body’s ability to detect harm or injury. Medical Therapeutic Yoga™ will not only help you live with less pain, but will contribute to the longevity of your life by becoming integrated into your activities of daily living so that you can mindfully reduce joint & spine compression all day long.
If you’re interested in alternative medicine methods for staying healthy, visit Veronica Whetsel Integrative Physical Therapy in Annapolis, MD. She specializes in integrative alternative medicine and yoga therapy. She can help alleviate chronic lower back and neck pain though Medical Therapeutic Yoga™ and Therapeutic Pilates. Her biopsychosocial approach to therapy and lifestyle medicine helps you live your life to the fullest. Learn more about her yoga and Pilates classes online or call (443) 822-3725 to book your first free class.