Angel’s Struggle with Back Pain

I love helping people get permanent relief from back pain. My own struggle with mysterious and debilitating back pain is what got me interested.

When I was 20 I was a pretty extreme martial artist and acrobat. I trained several hours a day 5 or 6 days a week. Jumping, twisting, kicking, flipping, handstanding, falling down, and getting knocked down.

Remember photos that you had to get developed?

One of my few pictures from 20 years ago. Practicing Capoeira tricks on the beach in Florida

Then one day I started to have back pain. There was no particular incident. It came on slowly and got worse and worse day by day until it was hurting all the time. I couldn’t sit for long periods, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stand, and I even stopped training in martial arts because I was afraid that was making it worse.

I went to the doctor and got an X-ray of my spine which showed a normal, healthy spine with no injuries. My doctor sent me to physical therapy. I didn’t know much at the time, so I just went to the closest PT to me. It was a huge disappointment.

The physical therapist looked at me for 5 minutes and told me I needed to strengthen my core. What?! Since the age of 5, I’ve been a gymnast, dancer, exercise fanatic and martial artist. I can literally do planks and sit-ups all day long and you think my core is weak? I had no other great ideas so I did what they told me to do. You know, pelvic tilts. Laying on my back and tilting my pelvis. Laying on my back and marching my legs. Doing squats with my back against the wall. If you think these exercises would do nothing for an athlete, you are very correct.

The physical therapist had her student work with me. He wore very nice suits, came in and told me what exercises to do and then left me alone to do them. But he carried himself very well when he did it. And he had a stylish watch too. Very snazzy. Anyway, needless to say, I did not get better.

Then I went to the chiropractor. He said I needed to come in 2 times a week for 6 weeks so I did. He smelled like cigarettes and seemed pretty unhappy. He never said much. I found it a strange “health” care experience. I got short term relief from the treatments but then the pain came right back.

I went back to the doctor. They did a bone scan and an MRI. Thousands of dollars later, guess what….all tests were negative. There was nothing wrong with my back, it just hurt!

I gave up on getting rid of the pain and went back to doing what I loved. I lived with the pain for about 3 years. Then I went to physical therapy school at UNC-Chapel Hill.

I got to see a great PT there. On the first visit, she figured out that my back hurt because one of my hips (on my dominant kicking leg) was weak and stiff. She gave me exercises to do and they took care of my pain almost right away.

As long as I did the exercises, I was fine. The problem was the exercises were boring, time-consuming and didn’t get my whole body fit. So I would have periods of time where I would give up on them and spend more time doing other things and then my pain would come back. Then I would get back to the exercises. It felt good at least to have a way to feel better.

Then in 2009, I discovered functional fitness and CrossFit. I started doing true strength training. It turned out that heavy squats and deadlifts helped my back pain just as much or more than the boring PT exercises and they also got me super fit, strong, healthy and with more energy than ever.

Because of my own struggle with back pain, I never want anybody to go through what I did - the years of not understanding why I was having pain, the wasted time and money on treatments that were not effective. My experience taught me the importance of

1) A correct diagnosis

2) Looking at the whole body for the cause

3) Spending time with patients and making sure they are getting better

4) The importance of building strength in order to decrease pain

Through practicing physical therapy for 13 years, I’ve also learned the importance of hands-on techniques like massage, spinal manipulation, joint mobilization and dry needling for decreasing people’s pain. My first priority when working with people in pain is to get their pain levels down. Hands-on therapy is usually very helpful for pain. Then I start with whatever exercises people can handle, and I build up from there.

I try to get people as strong as they are willing to let me. That’s why I’m in a CrossFit gym - so that I can have access to all the equipment for building people’s strength and fitness. Building strength makes people’s bodies resistant to injury and pain, plus it makes them happy and healthy. It’s a win-win.

However, with exercise and fitness, I meet people where they are at and not try to be too pushy about my style. If they like yoga, pilates and stretching, that’s fine. I like those things too. I try to make people’s exercise programs enjoyable for them so that they will actually do it.

Thanks for reading about my experience with back pain. I’m grateful for it because it has helped me understand what many people go through and motivates me to be helpful.