Things I Learnt In Years After A Very Serious Back Injury
Updated: Jan 25
In March 2019 I suffered a debilitating back injury. Eventually it became so bad that for weeks I could not sleep a wink at night tossing and turning at night trying to find one position that would make it better. I couldn't sit down and eat, I had to remain standing and switch legs all the time while I ate. I could not even use the commode.
However, it did not start this bad, it started milder. It only used to hurt when I placed weight on my left leg or bent forward. I could sleep, I could sit, I could work out as well and the last two things gave me the idea that it was a minor thing. I knew that I had a disc herniated, confirmed later by an orthopedic examination.
At that point I used to travel around the city giving PT to my clients at their homes. So I stopped travelling on my scooter for 2 weeks and that helped a little, but I never took a day off from working out, I kept doing back bending and glute bridges at home to hasten my recovery. After a week I was back in the gym doing lunges, Romanian deadlift, back bridges, and some random core work.
In a month's time my back was at its worst as described in the opening paragraph. At the same time I had started work on the studio that is now Primalpush's physical presence. The inability to do almost anything human plus having to be at the site everyday drove me to a very very dark place. On the one hand my goal was to help people be their very best self but I myself was unable to stand without groaning in excruciating pain. When I thought about my future, all I could see was darkness and I had no strength - mental, or physical - to fight that darkness. I had given up.
I used to groan in pain all nights, hoping and praying I could fall asleep. I couldn't, I kept distracting myself in many ways trying to make it through the night without jumping off of something that would end my suffering. Binge watching Netflix shows, indulging in decadent sexual behavior, etc., just forming a very very bad relationship with myself and the world around me. The repercussions from those behaviors haunt me till this day. I have still not figured out everything that is odd in my life, and the lure of those behavior is still very strong.
With this background in mind, lets get into the things that I learnt in the years after the injury.
The biggest mistake that I see is not resting early enough and long enough. I was back in the gym by the end of first week. No matter how big or small the injury is, resting in the initial phase where it is still hurting to do basic human movements is absolutely essential. Rushing back in the rehab only delays the return to full function. No matter who do you think you are, if you're injured, rest!
Have people around, who would understand the darkness in you, and remind you that you are not your darkness
It is very very important. Having people who understand that you are going through a very depressing, and dark time in your journey is the best kind of gold. Despite my bad injury my father was still investing in my dream of owning a personal training studio, and my mother was always supportive of whatever decision I took regarding my treatment. She assured me that, she'll let me have a surgery if I absolutely need it. She also accompanied me to countless doctors that I found in my journey to get better. Both of them have overcome terrible back issues themselves and it showed in the way that they cared. Their light and optimism helped me to stand up again everyday irrespective of how bad the night was.
There was this really important person in my life at that point of time, she helped me release my darkness often talking to me through the night despite having her college and other commitments. Unfortunately when I recovered I did not work on repairing my mindset and attitude towards her. She remained the genuinely good person that she was, I on the other hand kept abusing her for her ability to heal the darkness in me which led to an abrupt and painful end of our friendship. We no longer talk, I wish things were different between us.
Identify and heal your soul wound
The simplest way I can define a soul wound is a thought that keeps you in a loop of self defeating behavior. While I was recovering from my injury, I placed a big emphasis on discovering my soul wounds and then becoming more mindful of them. I was helped in that quest by great poets, and writers such as Robert Bly, Joseph Campbell, Robert Moore.
I continue to read their works till date because the material in their books are timeless, and also the more you experience life the more you understand the profundity of their work. In upcoming posts I will write my detailed experience with soul work.
Now let's talk about training after getting injured.
Rest enough to allow normal functions to become painless again. Once you have recovered painless movement through it's entire range start strengthening it gradually. Depending upon the extent of injury, and the amount of rest used the return to full function can be longer than you expect. Be very patient. Compensation patterns that led to a particular injury must be addressed and they'll have as much impact on your return if not more than directly strengthening the injured part.
Identify the most central issue that culminated in an injury and start working on it. Mine was faulty breathing pattern that made me unable to use my core for all kinds of movements, upper body as well as lower body movements. And I was quite fit, and active prior to getting injured therefore my body has been developing ways to compensate for my inability to stabilize my trunk using abdominal muscles leading to body-wide dysfunction which culminated in this injury.
Prioritize breath work and core training
No matter the nature of your injury, you will benefit from having a stronger core. A strong core enables one to generate force through the extremities more efficiently. A stable spine is the most fundamental aspect of safe movement. If the spine is not stabilized, the body compensates in myriad ways leading to joint instability, issues with joint centration which cause degeneration in the joint itself and the muscles passing through these joints.
Special attention must be given to obliques training which is vastly undertrained in almost all of us. A big reason for that is, as we began sitting more and more the obliques have no purpose of maintaining tension. Therefore we must actively work to counteract the affect of sitting by training the obliques. There will be more written in future on the importance of obliques for health and function.
Similarly, breath work makes you more aware of your spine and also allows you to engage core muscle more effectively. This is the most unglamorous part of training but it must be done.
While you are recovering from your injury try not to gorge on fast food in order to get past the uncomfortable feeling of being less than what you used to be before injury. It is a feeling that gets the best of us, but we must work on these things by directly addressing these emotions through what is called in soul work as "entering the wound".
Eating crap can lead to inflammation, more sensitivity to pain, more depression because your body is lacking nutrition, general body debility, and poor outlook towards life. Eating good healthy wholesome food can make you recover faster from the injury. ease pain, build mental and physical strength to take the travails of rehab head on.
Rehab work is not very intense, it's more about learning how to engage small muscles, move joints more mindfully, breathing with more control none which is going to give the high as great as high intensity training, but doing it everyday chipping away at the weakness little by little everyday will make the foundation for a more robust antifragile you.
This principle can be applied to training in general. Rather than employing go hard or go home mentality learn to be more consistent and overtime your gains will be bigger as you would have accumulated a larger training stimulus compared to someone who worked hard one day and then rested a week.
Now don't get me wrong I'm all about hard training but I'm more about training consistently than training so hard that it injures you.
With the correct mindset rehab can be seen as an exploration into a new dimension of your being. Rather than taking it as a burden chose to take it for what it really is, an opportunity to understand the uniqueness of your body. How it moves, how one part influences other, how something as subtle as breathing can affect how your shoulder articulates. It is really fascinating. But one must have to have the right mindset. With the right mindset this process will not feel as long. Mindfulness during movement is an art that must be learnt by every practitioner of physical culture. It acts as an inbuilt self-correcting mechanism thus preventing injury.
I understand that in the wake of an injury it is hard to cultivate this mindset but it must be done. It won't happen easily, everyday you'll want to replay, and relieve the past where you were indestructible, but start again. It's like getting through any kind of addiction, so long as you don't resign you can do it.
Finally, the most important thing that I learnt is that whether you are injured or not having discipline is the key to successfully overcoming any obstacle that may come up. Some days you won't be as motivated to go for the rehab, will be too tired to get out of the bed, or simply not feeling it, do it especially on these days. Doing it when it is only when it is easy does not build a habit of mindfulness.
As the famous saying goes
We are what we repeatedly do, success than is not an action but a habit.
One must strive to develop habit of using clean movements with good connection to core.
However the most important thing that I learnt is that
No matter how bad it is, it always gets better.
All of the things written above has allowed me to return to my pre-injury level of performance sometimes exceeding them too. Hope they will help you in your journey too.
At nearly 10k words this is already a long post and the things that I've written here are just summaries of future posts that will cover each of the topics in detail. Let me know in the comments what are the things that you are most eager to read about. Thanks for reading, cheers :)