In September of 2006, I hit a milestone clean and jerk (160kg). To celebrate, I took a grand victory lap around the gym. I don’t know how long the lap took, but it was enough for my body to have cooled down. For my next exercise (clean pulls), I didn’t think I needed to warm up again. When I went into the first rep, a massive pain jolted through my lower back.

I fell to my knees and could barely breathe. By flexing my abs as much as I could, I was able to get up, get to my car, and drive home. An MRI showed that I had herniated a disc between the L5 and S1 vertebrae. This and similar injuries affect athletes at all levels. Nearly all find a way to recover, return to 100%, and continue growing either by surgery or physical therapy.

Image from http://bit.ly/2ppWW1k

For the nine months following the injury, I couldn’t sit or stand for more than a few minutes. My left leg would hurt and go numb. I went to physical therapy, which didn’t help. Two weeks before my scheduled spine surgery, an acupuncturist suggested I follow a protocol (described below). The pain went away in just over a week, and I was fully active within two weeks.

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First, a few words on avoiding back injury in general. Most back injuries happen toward the end of the summer (because of dehydration), and toward the end of training cycles (when we lift the heaviest weights). To reduce the risk of injuring your back, stay hydrated, stretch and warm up the muscles of the back before lifting heavy weights, and regularly work on developing strength and rigidity in the muscles of the lower back and abs. Here are some good exercises:

  • Ab strength: too many to list. Google it.
  • Ab rigidity: Planks. When doing planks, tilt your hips forward. If you want to add weight, place it on the hips, not on the upper back.
  • Lower back strength: Back raises
  • Lower back rigidity: back-raise holds

Back raise holds

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So, if you have similar symptoms, the likely causes are:

  • the fluid from within a ruptured disc has been squeezed out, and has calcified in a way that now puts pressure on a nerve, or:
  • the disc has become smaller or has moved and now provides less cushion between two vertebrae that are irritating a nerve that runs between them.

Either way, the body reacts with inflammation that restricts blood flow in the area (reducing nutrients needed to heal), and adds additional pressure to the sore area or onto the nerve, causing more irritation and inflammation. To make matters worse, muscles that pull on the vertebrae sieze up to avoid movement of the damaged area, pulling the vertebrae closer together, and causing more pressure.

If you have a disc injury causing daily pain, I suggest trying the following:

Disclaimer:  I am not a doctor or a physical therapist.  I have however stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. 

  • Hang from a pull-up bar or use an inversion table for at least 2 minutes, at least three times per day. Gravity will help to pull the vertebrae apart. Try to relax your back in this position. It may hurt the first few times.
  • Drink lots of water. So much that your urine is completely colorless, and you have to pee annoyingly often. With the vertebrae further apart and with enough fluid in your system, you will get more nutrients into the damaged area to heal it.
  • Do the following stretch very often (every hour or 3) to stretch the posterior chain and nerves (video here):
    • Stand vertically next to something that is as high as your hips (a table or sofa) with one foot in front of the other, with something about an inch high under the ball of the front foot (a thick book works well).
    • Place your hands by your sides or on the table, keep both legs and your back straight, and slowly bend forward at the hip.
    • You should feel a pull somewhere along the posterior chain (in the calf, hamstring, butt, or lower back). Don’t push hard, just get to a position where you feel a stretch and stay there for 30 seconds. Breathe deeply. Then switch legs and repeat.
  • Get daily physical exercise and frequent massages. Any imbalance in our skeletal structure causes far-reaching changes to our bodies. A single muscle constantly overpulling causes two bones to be closer than they otherwise were designed to be. All muscles that are attached directly or indirectly to those bones must then work in an environment in which they were not designed to work. This leads to muscles overworking, cramping up, and possibly causing additional pain. If we solely fix the initial underlying problem, other problems caused by the initial problem may remain and may influence the original problem to return by upholding the incorrect skeletal structure. To get out of this cycle, it’s necessary to get daily physical activity and frequent massages. I suggest learning how to use a lacrosse ball for self-massage to relieve tension in all nearby muscles.

If you do these four things religiously, for two full weeks, it may help. Athletes who have similar spine injuries can often return to training within 1-3 weeks. If you feel a difference in a week, then continue doing this until the back doesn’t hurt anymore.

Keep in mind that you’ll feel this pain again toward the end of every summer for the next few years, and a few times throughout the next year. When the pain returns – just repeat the steps listed above.

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If you have a herniated disk or similar injury, do try this out and let me know if it helps! If it doesn’t help, thanks for humoring me.

Yasha Kahn
Weightlifter, coach and now: blogger. I've traveled around the world sharing my weightlifting knowledge and experiences. I look forward to the next adventure.
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