Sciatic nerves NIH

Regular readers of this blog know that while I am a writer, I also enjoy physical exercise. What they do not know is that for the past year I have dealt with chronic back pain, which left me inactive for the first time in my life. Now that I have almost completely alleviated the pain, I think sharing the lessons I learned from the experience may be applicable to anyone in need of healing — physical, mental, or spiritual.

Roughly one year ago my back seized up and I found myself on a hardwood floor after 10,000 volts of electricity seemingly ran through my body. It took about 45 minutes to crawl towards my bedroom about 15 feet away. I was covered with sweat after pulling myself into bed (where I spent the next four days). Afterward, the pain lingered throughout my lower back and butt, but I had no idea where it came from.

“Is my old back injury from the Army acting up? Did pushing my wife’s car out of the snow damage something? Did I somehow hurt my back dead-lifting with improper form?” I thought.

Then, I went to work trying to figure out the best way to heal.

  • I stopped lifting weights and opted to exclusively run and swim — no success.
  • I exercised muscles around the affected area, hoping they would compensate for the weak point and give it time to heal — no success.
  • I tried only doing upper-body work — no success.
  • I tried anti-inflammatory pills — no success (unless I wanted to live on anti-inflammatories for the rest of my life and destroy my kidneys).
  • I tried osteopathic manipulative treatment — no success (my hips and back were out of whack within 24 hours after each treatment).
  • I tried a complete secession of physical activity — no success.

For a man who has spent his entire life being physically active, this sort of repeated failure was, in many ways, demoralizing.

“What if I have been completely wrong about the underlying cause of my pain this entire time?” I thought.What if the problem is something I would have never expected? If so, what could that be?”

I finally concluded my pain could be caused by the hours upon hours I sit in a chair each day, even though I have always made time for exercise when I am not working.

The possible solution turned out to be something I have avoided for years: Yoga.

Sciatica yoga

I looked up many videos on yoga for sciatic nerve pain and began stretching religiously twice a day.

At first, no success. I had almost zero flexibility and the stretches were somewhat painful. I kept at it.

Then, pain that was once dispersed throughout my lower body localized around my sacrum.

Then, I could get out of bed in the morning without pain, even if my back “wasn’t quite right.” My flexibility had dramatically increased.

Then, one day, I felt good enough to do a little dance in front of my wife — and my back said, “Nope! Not ready for dancing.”

This week, for the first time in one year, I exercised every single day and managed to work in dead-lifts with no problem.

The moral of the story is this: Healing often requires hard work. It also may require you to admit that all of your preconceived ideas of where your pain is coming from are wrong. On top of everything else, the healing process itself may demand you willingly endure more pain.

Time does not heal all wounds. Pills do not always work, and smart people often cause themselves a lot of pain by refusing to admit that they do not have all the answers.

The last thing I wanted to do over the past month is to admit that regular yoga was what I needed to heal my back pain and counter the many hours I sit in a chair for work. Luckily, I put my ego aside and listened to yoga instructors like Jen Hilman.

I was wrong. If you are in some kind of pain, then I implore you to be open to the idea that you too may be wrong about a lot of things. The decision may put you on the road to recovery faster than you think.

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

2 comments

  1. Good stuff. I had injured my back severely in 2005. When I was first hurt, I thought I would never walk again, the pain was so bad. It took years to recover, and the fact that I can Mountain Bike, run and lift weights again feels like a blessing.

    You are right about everything, you have to work hard, maintain a positive attitude and most importantly, keep an open mind. Turning back to the stretches I used to do when I was in martial arts had a big impact in my recovery. In fact, it was the difference between just relieving the pain (I had been doing weight training, which helped with the pain) and being active in sports I enjoyed without fear.

    I will look into trying Yoga, I would love to get even more of my flexibility back.

    1. “I had injured my back severely in 2005. When I was first hurt, I thought I would never walk again, the pain was so bad. It took years to recover, and the fact that I can Mountain Bike, run and lift weights again feels like a blessing.”

      I’m glad that you were able to overcome that, Chuck. It’s truly a humbling experience to have severe back problems. I think most people — myself included — have a habit of taking our health for granted. I can only speak for myself, but in some weird way I’m sort of grateful for having to go through the ordeal. I learned a lot about myself and the nature of healing through it all and think those lessons will be indispensable once old age starts to kick in. 😉

      “I will look into trying Yoga, I would love to get even more of my flexibility back.”

      Yoga is one of those things that I never really had anything against it, but at the same time it’s hard not to think of it as “exercise for women.” I only say that because I used to work in a gym and 99 percent of all the yoga classes were always filled with women. I suppose sometimes there was a random guy who was either a hippy or gay…but that’s about it.

      Now that I’ve actually started some of these stretches and had success with them, my older self just shakes his head in frustration at my younger self.

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