I have a bad back.
Shame, embarrassment and anger are the emotions that this statement ignites in me. I had done everything I could to take care of my body, and yet I was broken.
This may seem like it’s starting out to be one of those “I hit rock bottom” stories where I had a “transformational experience” and then cured myself. Don’t worry, it’s not. I’m not “cured”; I still have to work on my body. This is the story of my back pain journey, which cast a shadow over my life for a dozen years. There’s no crazy transformation, just an ever-evolving, deepening understanding of the body, of which I will share with you.
I used to be an athlete. Not anymore. I couldn’t lift weights. I couldn’t play basketball. I couldn’t pursue my passion of surfing because I felt the nerve damage every time I went.
I have a bad back.
I hated those words. I didn’t talk about it with anyone for fear of looking vulnerable. Don’t get me wrong, my friends and family all knew, and at times treated me like I was handicapped, but it went largely unspoken. It was too much of a drastic change from who I once was.
No. It wasn’t drastic. Worse, it was gradual. When people asked me what happened, I didn’t have a specific injury I could blame. I just… had a bad back. That was my normal. The serious back problems started when I was 17. It’s funny, every new physical therapist I saw over all those years said the same thing.
“You’re way too young for this.” Salt in the wound.
What did my future look like? I had one chiropractor tell me, after looking at my x-ray, that I would be in a wheelchair by the time I was 30. Imagine how that affected my psyche. That same chiro then cracked my back so hard that, from then on, I could feel the shifting of an instability every time I took a step. A physical therapist once told me that if I could just hold off from getting surgery for 5 more years, the technology would be much better by then. I still haven’t gotten surgery, and that technology still hasn’t come out.
So I was curled up on my bedroom floor dwelling on my pain. It was my usual spot, but this time was different. Not only did I have my normal lower back pain, but I also had neck pain. I could feel that my jaw was jutting forward, and my bite was messed up too! Then I realized what I had wasn’t just a back problem, but a whole body problem.
I had a hopeless feeling about my future. I thought I had tried everything: physical therapy, chiropractic, massage, medicine, pills, injections, acupuncture, Rolfing, cupping, Alexander Technique, yoga, pilates, traditional Chinese medicine, you name it. I even studied Exercise and Health Science in college. And despite all my efforts, I literally felt like my body was falling apart.
In that moment I knew… I would either have to accept my wheelchair-bound fate, or take responsibility in my own hands and become my own healer. So when I was 24, I committed my life to learning how to rehabilitate my back, and once I figured it out, to helping others with the same problem.
In the following years I became obsessed with research, consuming books and articles. I discovered muscle imbalances as the cause of my back problem. This holistic (whole body) concept resonated with me. It connected the dots and served as an explanation for things, like my laundry list of other injuries. It was a way to look at chronic pain from a global body perspective.
I knew I finally understood the root cause of my back pain. More significantly, that the same problem was happening to many other people… the vast majority in fact. I wanted to share the knowledge. My own body was the test pilot. I implemented what I learned into my exercise program, restoring my body’s core muscular balance. I was far from where I wanted to be, but starting to see positive results. I needed a deeper understanding and more tools.
Greetings, physical therapy school.
Early on in the program, I found myself to be in a very unique position. I went into it already having an intimate understanding of the body from my personal experience with back pain, and my knowledge of muscle imbalances. There, we studied the body by breaking it down into parts. So I applied everything we learned to the whole body concepts I already understood. I graduated from PT school with high honors just before my 30th birthday.
I’ve now worked in rehab facilities, outpatient clinics, sports clinics, with Olympic athletes, geriatrics, pediatrics, a professional sports team, and even in a hospital. Wherever I go, I see lower back pain, and muscle imbalances underneath.
My mission is to put a dent in the lower back pain epidemic by empowering people. I want to help inspire the movement towards people taking responsibility for their own health. Empower yourself. Learn the incredibly valuable knowledge of what’s happening to your body and how to reverse it. I learned the hard way over 14 years. Let me share it with you.
Dr. Ryan Peebles PT, DPT