What injuring my back taught me about pain and effort

During my first year of grad school, I made a stupid mistake. I was lifting and moving a very heavy incubator, and I wasn’t careful. I was young and relatively healthy, and I hadn’t had a major injury since I broke my leg in kindergarten, so I assumed I was fine. I wasn’t. The next day, I could barely stand up straight. I sat miserably through class, went home early, and spent much of the next week laying flat on my couch.

The next two years were a struggle. I had quite a few “re-injuries,” including the major one where I was lifting boxes of vintage china (in preparation for our wedding). I would get better for a while, only to have something like standing up too long or lifting and playing with my nieces make it worse again. I missed more time at school, and I started to feel a little helpless at the prospect of having back pain for the rest of my life.

During one of my recent bouts of pain, my husband (the one who works in Occupational Therapy) pushed me not to let the pain get the better of me. He wanted me to try to work through the pain and work on strengthening my back, instead of lying down (literally) every time I hurt. But I pushed back. Didn’t he realize how much pain I was in? I wondered. Didn’t he know that even standing for long periods of time was painful? That I could only get comfortable position I could find was lying flat on my back?

Eventually, my reluctance to deal with the pain head on caught up with me. I started getting stiff from the lack of movement, and then I wouldn’t move all night while I slept, so I would wake up more sore and stiff, and the cycle spiraled from there. I was taking Aleve every day, which turned out to be really bad for my stomach. I knew that, of course, but talked myself into believing I would be fine. I wasn’t. (Notice a pattern?) Late one night, I woke up with pain in my stomach so severe that Matt ended up taking me to the ER. I’m still recovering from the severe gastritis I gave myself, a process which required me to give up coffee, tea, soda, tomatoes, and other acidic or spicy foods for at least a month (the caffeine withdrawal alone was worse than the stomach pain, in my opinion).

By this point, I started to realize that my efforts to avoid pain were only making my pain worse. My back was worse than it had ever been; it was bad enough that picking up a friend’s one-year-old left me in agonyΒ for a week. I was letting the pain dictate what I could and couldn’t do, saying no to activities I loved because of my back.

Finally, I realized that I had two options: 1) I could feel sorry for myself, “take it easy,” and eventually find myself unable to do much of anything or 2) I could push in and work through the pain.

I started doing some basic back exercises and stretches I found online. After the first night of working out, I hurt worse than before, and I went to bed thinking I’d made a huge mistake. But, when I woke up, it was with less stiffness than I’d had in a while. I kept doing the exercises, and started feeling my pain reach a more manageable level. Soon, I went whole days without noticing any pain. It felt like a miracle.

It turns out that the stretches I avoided doing because they were painful were the very ones that helped me have less pain overall. I’ve recently reached a point where I’m not only working out my back, but getting back into Pilates (which I love) to re-build my core muscles. Does working out hurt? Sometimes it does, for reasons related and unrelated to my back. But I know that every day I push through that pain, I get to have less pain in the future. I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere. Life is going to have struggles, and pain, and difficulty. I can intentionally push into the pain of growing and getting better, or I can be swept into the pain that comes from inattention. That applies whether we are talking about our bodies, personal growth, spiritual growth, etc. You can take the pain that comes before progress, or the pain of regret. I think I’ve figured out which one I want.

What injuring my back taught me about pain and effort

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