On the whole, I’ve been fairly fortunate in my running, cycling, and triathlon adventures of the last few years as I have not had any real serious injuries. There have been some bouts with tendonitis and plantar fasciitis, but no stress fractures, damaged ligaments, bad knees or anything otherwise debilitating.
That said, after returning from Maine and Massachusetts where I competed in my last planned triathlon of the season, I headed to the gym early last Tuesday for a light weight workout. During these workouts, I typically do a short treadmill warm-up at a slower-than-normal running pace to elevate my heart rate before I hit the gym floor. The plan was 5 minutes on the treadmill. At minute 3 I could tell something was not good. I felt a twinge of pain in my lower back near the right hip joint. I had suffered greatly with back spasms and pain during last week’s Challenge Maine triathlon. However, I had enjoyed two great, pain-free runs post race and had assumed a bit of rest had solved those issues. Now, as I slowed to a walk and stepped off the treadmill the back pain started all over again.
I stretched and walked around a bit and went through the motions of some of my weight workout. The last part was pretty stupid in retrospect. I should have just stopped but I guess I was living in denial. I was, however, careful to avoid anything that caused additional discomfort.
I hoped the pain was just a spasm and that it would abate during the day. But after the 35 mile drive to work I could hardly walk up the stairs to my desk. I would spend the next couple days hobbling/shuffling like an old man. This would be the 4th back injury in 3 years with little or no identifiable cause. These injuries are especially annoying not only because it prevents me from being able to get a workout in but in general makes life difficult. I probably shouldn’t have been driving Tuesday or Wednesday as I couldn’t turn to the left to see traffic.
Through a lot of rest and a little ibuprofen I got through the next couple of days. I even got an easy spin on the bike in on Thursday but had to be careful about how I moved. (I was on the trainer so no worries about safety.) Friday morning, improvement seemed to have stopped. It just felt like something was where it shouldn’t be. I was up at my normal early time on Friday and since the pool was closed for annual maintenance decided to take a walk. As I walked down the street, I could tell I wasn’t walking normally and had to sort of swing my right leg around and kick it out in front of me. I had a silly notion that I might run a few miles at lunch so decided to jog a bit and see how it felt. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Every jogged step felt like someone was hammering a piston down on a muscle or nerve where the hip meets the lower back. Not only was I not running today but decided something else better happen.
After returning from my walk I perused my Facebook page and saw a post from friend and experienced runner Shannon Dos Santos. She had returned from the doctor and learned she had scoliosis and suspected that was the issue with some of her on-going running pain. My head nearly exploded. I have scoliosis in one of it’s worst forms. I don’t remember the degrees of curvature but I was treated from the time I was about 8 or 9 years old until sometime in high-school. The treatment involved the wear of a plastic brace known as a Wilmington Brace that wrapped my body from under the armpits to down below the waist. The creation of said jacket was humiliating and painful. It occurred at Alfred I. Dupont institute and involved laying on a thin strap while about 4-6 technicians created a cast around the torso. Different straps, knees, and forms were used to build in indentations that would hold the spine in place as I grew. Once the cast was done, the Wilmington Brace was created from it. This jacket had a couple of straps which a technician marked at the points to pull the straps to. Picture a plastic girdle that the wearer cinched down to the point slightly beyond where it begins to hurt. But there would be a tennis ball wedged into the lower back under the girdle. This was considered state of the art treatment. I wore a brace such as this for about 8 years. I was supposed to wear it until I was done growing but got fed up with it in high school and refused to wear it any longer.
I provide this to put in perspective the seriousness of my scoliosis diagnosis. When discussing scoliosis, almost everyone says “Yeah, I have that too”. While it may be true that a lot of people have some variety of a spine curvature, there are relatively few people with a real diagnosis of potentially life-threatening scoliosis.
Why is this important? Well, I knew that the on-going right-foot issues I’ve had with tendonitis and plantar fasciitis were scoliosis related. Due to the twist of my body, my right leg acts considerably longer than the left thus thrusting my right arch into oblivion and over stretching the post tibial tendon and plantar fascia. It stands to reason that if the curved spine and skewed body cause this many issues all the way down in my foot then certainly there must be other consequences of high milage and and active lifestyle on a not-quite-right frame.
More than once the past few years I’ve not only dealt with unexplained back injuries but also spasms and pain during long runs and bike rides. I kept attributing those issues to bike fit (which was true to a degree initially). But now it occurred to me maybe there were other factors which were out of my control. But what to do?
Over the years I have heard good, bad, and indifferent about chiropractic care. I had always been a bit indifferent. I had always been indifferent about massage therapy as well until the stiffness and aches and pains associated with the ramped-up training for Ironman made me perpetually sore, tired, and miserable. Only then did I break down and experience my first full-body massage . . . and how awesome it can be! Hmm. I checked with my insurance and not only was chiropractic care covered but they had recommendations for practices. I had criteria. I wanted someone close to work rather than home since I knew there might be several visits involved. I also wanted someone with some sports background. When parsing through the list of approved practitioners from insurance I found Dr. Jessica Kennedy of Tri-County Chiropractic in Exton, PA. This was only a few minutes from work. Their office also offered massage therapy. This was a bonus considering my prior therapist had moved on to a teaching position and was no longer available.
As I dialed the phone, I was skeptical that I could get an appointment for the same day and expected to go through the weekend without any relief from the nagging pain in my lower back. I was pleasantly surprised when they asked if I could make it at 12:15? Awesome! “Yes I can”!
I rearranged a meeting on my calendar, filled out the new patient form on the internet and rushed out the door to head to Exton. I was greeted promptly and after a short wait met Dr. Kennedy. We reviewed the information I had provided, my injury history, scoliosis, and my sports activities. I stated my concern about the somewhat chronic back, neck, and shoulder issues. Dr. Kennedy then performed an examination and evaluation of range of motion, and a bit of a physical comparison of shoulders, hips, etc. She asked me lay face-down on the exam/adjustment table (not sure the right word here) and continued her examination.
Dr. Kennedy doesn’t just do some manipulation and send you on your way. She first applied electronic muscle stimulation and heat. This was sort of interesting. The muscle stimulation uses some sort of little doohickeys (sorry for the advanced chiropractic terminology) that create a tingling, electric pulse through your muscles. I have to admit it felt pretty good and I could feel the muscles responding and relaxing. Of course the heat felt good as well. The next step prior to adjustment is massage therapy. Now if you are thinking a nice gentle rub down, think again. We are talking about deep tissue, aggressive loosening of the muscle fibers. You’d better be ready to bite the bullet a bit here. The facility has several massage therapists who normally perform this. Once done, a bit more heat is applied until Dr. Kennedy comes back to make any needed adjustments.
After a few minutes, Dr. Kennedy re-appeared and talked through the adjustments she wanted to perform. It turned out I was a bit more nervous about this than I thought but I came here for a reason and if things didn’t work out today I didn’t have to come back. She positioned me face down with my arms hanging down, asked me to take a deep breath in and exhale and as I did she pushed down heavily on the middle of my lower back. This was repeated twice. I then moved to one side with the upper leg bent and hands folded. Dr. Kennedy made an audible adjustment to the hip area. We did this on both sides. She then had me lay on my back and she worked on my neck. I’ve had chronic issues with my neck and left shoulder that are perpetually stiff. This has gone on so long I’ve learned to live with it but I want to fix it. The neck adjustments were the most audibly noticeable to me. While holding my neck she manipulated my head to one side and there was a loud “crack” in my neck. Again, both sides. When this was done to the left (where I have most problems) I felt nearly instant relief as if pressure were removed from a muscle.
Dr. Kennedy asked me to stand up and see how things felt. Of course I felt “loose” but for the first time since Tuesday I didn’t have pain in my right hip. My range of motion was noticeably improved as well. She suggested that she wanted to kinesio tape my lower back to help out for the weekend. I was all about it. I had used KT Tape as part of recovery when dealing with tendonitis and it helped tremendously. So Dr. Kennedy retrieved several pieces of tape, cut them appropriately and applied them to my lower back.
The result has been tremendous and the support the KT Tape provides is noticeable. I may need to make this a normal pre-race ritual.
After creating a fairly aggressive followup schedule of appointments, I left to go back to work. On the highway I looked left to make sure traffic was clear to change lanes. “Hey! I can look left like all the way over my shoulder”! This was new. And it turned out I actually had better range of motion left than right. This was promising.
For now, I am a believer. I go back 3 times a week for the next couple weeks for followups. After that we’ll see but chiropractic care and massage may become a regular part of my workout regimen. To support this, I want to fulfill the often ignored New Year’s resolution of starting to do Yoga. I have to believe it would help with flexibility especially given the known back problems from scoliosis and the fact that so many top tier older athletes recommend it. Stay tuned to see how future visits and learning Yoga go.