Keep it Right, Keep it Tight
My Newfound Obsession with Protein Shakes & Gym Shoes (& the Daily Struggle)
Creating a Routine
Almost two years ago I started an insane journey toward health. It began when an injured heart turned me on to running and I found myself completely intoxicated. I didn't run far or fast but I consistently ran two and a half miles, six days a week. I started out thin and gained some muscle after months of running but no matter how often I ran, my legs wouldn’t tone. Even so, I kept up the running through summer and fall until my Master's thesis rolled around.
After eight months of research, sitting for countless hours each day, I was finally free. It was a new year and time to kick ass. I joined a gym and jumped into my new routine with both feet, attending as many as five yoga classes a week, along with weight lifting and sprints.
Weight lifting focused on arms, legs, chest/back and abs (using P90x as a guide). Because I had no idea what I was doing, I made detailed lists describing each exercise. This way, I could learn quickly. YouTube videos were also a huge help during this period.
Within a few weeks, I began to see progress but it was too good to be true. During one of my regular workouts, I felt a sharp pain. I had pulled my glute. The next few months were miserable. Simply walking to the train was so painful that tears filled my eyes each morning. I continued to hit the gym as much as possible with modified workouts and after nearly six weeks I was back full time.
A few weeks later, I pulled my other glute. It was so frustrating. Looking back, I see that my lack of movement leading up to joining the gym had a huge impact. I went from zero to ten overnight and my body (specifically my ass) wasn't happy about it.
After another month of healing, my lower back began to hurt. Years earlier I remembered seeing a chiropractor. The adjustments helped quite a bit so I figured it was worth a shot. I knew relief wouldn't be permanent but it was better than nothing. I bought a package through GroupOn for x-rays and six weeks of visits with Dr. Dawn in Lakeview.
Dr. Dawn was very knowledgeable and gave me insight on ways to improve my back pain, along with weekly exercises. She suggested no heeled shoes, magnesium supplements to reduce inflammation and sleeping with a pillow under my legs to reduce the pressure on my back, among other suggestions.
She also gave me an idea on what was really happening after reviewing my x-rays. Dr. Dawn discovered that my right hip is lower than the left and slightly rotated. It's something that could have happened naturally over time or possibly during one of my two major car accidents (another story entirely and hence my distaste for doctors and physical therapists as you'll later discover).
Primary Care Physicians (Can Suck It)
Although the chiropractor helped, my back pain was slowly increasing. I began experiencing headaches, as well as stomachaches. There was nothing left to do other than make an appointment with my primary care physician (even though I've never seen the point of a doctor unless it's an emergency). They churn out patients and generally state the obvious for these types of mysterious conditions.
In November 2016, I visited my primary care physician complaining of chronic low back pain, fatigue, right upper abdominal pain and chronic headaches. I was screened for cervical cancer and STD’s. My blood work came back clean and just as I thought - the doctor had no real answers. She suggested over the counter pain meds for ALL of my symptoms.
The pain continued and I was out of options. I thought I'd treat myself to a new mattress, it couldn't hurt. After asking around, my dad and brother recommended Tuft & Needle; a queen sized mattress costing less than $600. Amazon ships it to your doorstep rolled up like a burrito. Unwrap the mattress and within a day it puffs up, ready for use.
After the first night I was in love. The mattress is soft but supportive. It contours to your body and doesn't distort or sag over time. There's also no need to flip or rotate the mattress. In addition to the mattress I ordered a few bamboo pillows. The idea is the same here. They offer support but are soft enough to be extremely comfortable. I picked up an extra one to place under my knees as I sleep. This keeps you in the best position to alleviate lower back pain because sleeping is THE WORST.
At the office, I opted for a sit-to-stand station so I was able to move regularly throughout the day. Sitting stagnant for hours was one of the major sources of pain in my back. Additionally, I requested a flexible seat by Steelcase called the Buoy which promotes good posture and flexibility.
In January 2017, a friend of mine suggested NeuroKinetic Therapy, claiming it to be a miracle treatment. At nearly $100 a session I hesitantly gave it a try with Mara Nicandro at NMT. The idea is that through trauma or naturally over time one's muscles begin to fire incorrectly, stressing other parts of the body. The therapist puts pressure on these muscles and evaluates which ones are overcompensating for the ones lacking strength. Then she works to reprogram the muscles so that the damaging patterns are lost and normal muscle function is regained.
I will say, the first few sessions were extremely successful. I was able to take off on a trip to South America climbing mountains, parasailing and sleeping in hostel beds without much pain at all. But once home, the pain came back within a few weeks. I'm sure an office job doesn't help much.
Finally, in March of 2017 I began to consider physical therapy. I had been opposed up until then because I didn't think it could help my situation. It's a huge investment time-wise and my doctors office was a giant pain in the ass to deal with. I’d been requesting a referral for months without success. So, I began calling the doctors office daily and spoke with the supervisor to get things moving. I got a hold of my x-rays from the chiropractor to send for review.
As you can see, the green lines are where one's spin should be; mine is along the red. And check it out, I have an extra vertebrae.
This was enough pressure to get a referral for PT. I started sessions in March 2017 and was sorely disappointed. I would leave work early, travel 45 minutes and the therapist would have me peddle on a bike for 20 minutes at a snails pace. Talk about a waste of time.
Requesting a Specialist & Undergoing an MRI
As luck would have it, my specialist turned out to be great. On April 20, 2017 I visited my new doctor, Dr. Batra at Presence Medical Center. I explained that physical therapy was a joke and I needed a more aggressive treatment. Dr. Batra didn't waste any time, referring me to a new physical therapist and scheduling an MRI.
Within days, I was undergoing an MRI. Lying down on a table of sorts, I was moved into the machine. I spent 20 minutes as still as could be, listening to what sounded like an incessant jackhammer. Initially, I was worried about felling being trapped inside for so long but instead I found it strangely relaxing.
When I received the news, it wasn't good. Dr. Batra suggested I was suffering from bulging discs, pinched nerves, arthritis in my joints and degenerative disc disease. How could this happen at 35 years of age?
Dr. Batra put me on medication to reduce the production of the chemicals causing inflammation in my back called Diclofenac. The side effects included rapid weight gain and water retention, headaches, bathroom issues and stomach aches. I decided to stop the medication after a few weeks.
The doctor prescribed an alternate, Meloxicam. The side effects were even worse. One day on my way into the gym I noticed a red rash all over my stomach and chest. I decided to ignore it and continue with my workout. A few minutes in I became short of breath and almost had a panic attack, running out of the gym as fast as possible. It was terrifying.
I decided then, no meds. It wasn't worth it.
Physical Therapy - Take Two
Meanwhile, I began physical therapy with Andrew twice a week for three months. I would show up early in the morning, on lunch breaks or after work hours to strengthen my core and back. At times it felt like a vacation. He would massage my back, legs and ass until everything loosened up. But then, the work would begin.
Some exercises we practiced were core taps, clams, plank clams, side leg raises, side steps, hip flexor stretches, opposite leg and arm lifts and wall squats. I learned a lot while my core gained strength. Andrew also taught me to always "tuck" my bum since I have a tendency to over-arch my back.
Steroid Shots in my Spine?
The final step to reduce pain would be a steroid shot in my spine. Since I had stopped all my medications, the pain tended to come and go unexpectedly. I set an appointment for May 10, 2017 at 8:30 am.
As the date approached, I began to worry. I had had such bad reactions to the medications so I began to ask around. A friend of mine who had the same type of injection years ago reported horrible reactions of insomnia, weight gain, irritability and acne.
In the end, I decided it wasn't for me. I'd rather work hard the natural way and avoid medications and shots in my spine for as long as possible. It hasn't been easy but I've been dedicated to taking care of myself both physically and mentally.
Gluten Free Diet & Acceptance
Naturally, I became gluten free in order to support my health, mostly because I learned how gluten causes joint inflammation and arthritis, something I can't risk. I continue to get to the gym as much as possible, practice yoga and learn new ways of living with a messed up back.
Best Running Shoes: Brooks
Do yourself a favor and stop in a store that carries Brooks running shoes. They'll do a little workup on your feet showing pressure and contact points. The results will guide you toward proper running shoes.
Brooks are also super light, comfortable and supportive.
Best Smoothie Protein: Orgain
Try out the vanilla bean protein by Orgain. It's organic, vegan and has no added sugar. The taste is creamy, not gritty. You'll find it on Amazon for easy shipping.
For best results, use frozen banana chunks as your base and add additional fruit of your choice. My favorites are black cherries or acai puree you can find at Trader Joe's. Pour in Almond Milk and a heaping spoon of protein powder. Mint leaves and figs make delicious additions, too.
Try adding a touch of Maca Powder to your smoothies, as well. It's a super food I discovered while in Peru. Maca is a root known for increasing energy and vitality, enhancing mood, appearance and well being. Yes, please!
Main pic photo credit: eves_photogram