“It is your birthright to live a pain free and active life without limitations.” -Pete Egoscue
It’s easy to take our bodies for granted. After all, the human body knows what it is doing, and it is damn good at adapting to change.
But there are times when, out of the blue, it snaps. Throws in the towel. And that is what happened to me.
I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t lie down without crying out. I couldn’t sit without gasping. Simple movements created knife stabs of pain that shocked my lower back and jolted down my leg. Confused, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I assumed it would go away after a few days. Like a sore muscle after a hard workout.
As the founder and CEO of an INC 500 company (Simpler Trading, #21 in 2014), I suddenly had to abandon ship. I stayed locked up at home, hoping that my team cared as much about the business as I did. Between fits of throbbing pain, as the weeks slid by, I wondered if this was the end of my company. What happens if I can’t go back to the office? The start of financial ruin? Why wasn’t I healing? It seemed to be getting worse.
Coughing and sneezing sent jolts of pain down my spine and through my right hip. I did everything I could to hold those bodily functions back. And sitting on the toilet? No picnic in the park.
Bed rest? I couldn’t lie down for very long, and definitely not on a soft mattress. The moment I began to sink into the foam, pain would explode through my body. A wood floor was comfortable for a little while . . . right up until the numbness set in. Standing was the only comfortable position.
Sleeping? I slept 30 minutes at a time while hugging a bean bag chair. Then I had to walk around for half an hour and loosen everything up to try again. Because of this, I started sleeping in the guest room.
After 2 weeks of this routine, I started to lose it. My wife and kids tried the best they could to help. I told them not to worry. “I just need time to heal.” But why wasn’t I healing? My wife drove me to the chiropractor a few times a week. The adjustments and basic exercises recommended had the same effect as trying to entice a dog with a piece of cauliflower. In other words, no reaction.
Although I didn’t know why I wasn’t getting better, I started to realize something in the dark recesses of my mind. If I had to spend the rest of my life in this state, it might not be worth living. Shit. I locked that thought up tight for the moment.
“The body has no design flaws.” -Pete Egoscue
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my welcome to the world of constant, throbbing sciatic nerve pain. As an added bonus, I also had Piriformis Syndrome. This is when a band-like muscle located in the glutes near the top of the hip joint locks up. Unfortunately, this muscle is very important if you like to walk or maintain your balance. Trying to do either made me gasp.
Actually, I could take the throbbing. The constant dull ache had actually become little more than background noise to me after a while. It was the sharp, screaming pain that kicked in while bending, sitting, lying down, reaching, and twisting that broke my spirit. I couldn’t even put on my socks.
I learned how to avoid that type of pain. I would move and shift and contort until the pain went away. Then I would try to hold that position for as long as possible. Anything to make it stop. My life became all about making it stop.
Nothing helped. I alternated between ice and heat. Nothing. Stretching seemed to make it worse (later I found out that it did, in fact, make it worse). Over the counter painkillers did nothing. I tried them all. In great quantities. Each day I woke up after a few hours of restless sleep hoping I would sense a little bit of improvement in the pain. Each day, that hope faded into disappointment.
I can’t point to anything in particular that caused this mess. It didn’t happen while lifting up a heavy box or moving the sofa. A gradual nagging twinge appeared one day and, over the course of 24 hours, morphed into sheer hell. Like an idiot, I didn’t initially seek help. I did a lot of searching on the internet, a search that proved as confusing as it was fruitless. It was that futile search for answers that led me to write this article and share my experience with others.
Hurry Up And Wait
To pass the time, waiting for this to magically get better, I read entire books standing up. I watched movies standing up. I ate dinner with my family while standing up. I tried getting in a pool but I couldn’t do much in the water either.
There were only two semi-comfortable resting positions I discovered. And I tried everything. The first consisted of me kneeling on the floor and hugging a bean bag chair. This actually worked well. The main problem was my knees. After a while, they went numb. I got to where I could sleep for about 90 minutes by hugging a bean bag while on a bed. But even with a comfortable mattress, the knees would eventually cry out for relief.
My next best friend was a hardwood floor. Lying on my back, on something straight and rigid, was a pain-free event. Right up until I started going numb. Using a pillow to prop up my head didn’t work — that triggered the nerve pain. However, I could lay stretched out, or, better yet, with my legs hooked over a couple of pillows or an ottoman. I had no idea why these positions didn’t hurt, but they were welcome moments of “tolerable.” And at this point, tolerable and pleasurable were the same thing in my mind. Later I learned that these positions moved the bulging disc off my sciatic nerve. This also opened up my piriformis muscle to the point where it wasn’t squeezing my sciatica.
My saving grace was the financial markets. I actively trade stocks, options and cryptocurrency and they were a welcome distraction. I could stand at my raised workstation and watch the markets and trade. This helped the time to pass quickly.
Weekends, on the other hand, were pure torture. Each minute that passed felt like five. Sometimes ten. They never ended. I couldn’t lay down and watch movies or binge watch Netflix. I could only stand and try not to move very much.
When you have constant, stabbing pain, you can’t effectively interact with other human beings. “I love you,” I found myself saying. “But leave me alone.” You can’t act happy, and you don’t give a shit about anything else but what you are going through.
My wife eventually had enough. I suffered mostly in silence, so she didn’t know the extent of what was going on with me. But she did point out the obvious. “It’s not getting any better,” she said compassionately. “What are you waiting for?”
She called the doctor and forced me — gently — into the car. Her 4th child. Riding shotgun, I had to rest on my knees facing the back of the seat, hugging the head rest. Nearly everyone we passed on the road shot us confused looks. What was going on in our car?
The doctor examined me, took x-rays, and said my spine looked fine. We talked a little about prescription drugs, and she whipped out her pad and started writing out dosages for Hydrocodone and Tramadol, which essentially dull the brain into a mild blissful state. You don’t really care that you are hurting. These are opiate-based narcotics, with Hydrocodone being stronger (and more addictive) than Tramadol. I’d never taken them before, but at this point, I was willing to try anything. In addition to these pills, she also gave me Gabapentin, which dulls nerve pain. She said to take these with food.
After leaving the doctor, we went to the pharmacy to get these prescriptions filled. Then we drove straight to the first fast food joint we could find, which was a Wendy’s. I never eat fast food, but in this case, I was willing to make an exception to eating clean. It was the best damn cheeseburger I’ve ever eaten. In reality, I wasn’t eating processed meat. I was swallowing hope. The next two weeks of my life was all about the drugs.
Did the prescription drugs help? Yes. That first night I took one Hydrocodone and one Gabapentin along with the cheeseburger. I slept 3 hours in a row, in the bed, with my legs hooked over a bean bag chair. This was the most sleep I had gotten at one time over a period of several weeks. After that, I had to get up and walk around and let my muscles loosen up, but three hours of sleep in a row was a miracle.
So the next night, with the doctor’s OK, I took two of each.
I slept great. About 5 hours. Although the pain was still there in the morning, getting sleep started to help my sanity.
For the next week, my drug routine looked like this:
I would take 50 mg of Tramadol every 6 hours and then at night load up on my 2 doses of Hydrocodone (it said 5mg–325mg on the ingredients list) and 1 dose of Gabapentin (100 mg). This got me about 4 to 5 solid hours of sleep. When I woke up, I would have to decide whether to take one more of each or just power through it. If I took one more of each, I was able to sleep another 2 to 3 hours. If I didn’t, I would lay in bed (feet hooked over the bean bag) and watch HBO GO on my iPad.
As far as the drugs go, I definitely recommend them if you are suffering and you can’t sleep. Luckily, since they are narcotics, you have to talk to the doctor each time you get a refill. In other words, it is hard to stay on them, even if you want to. This is a good thing because they create a pleasant state of mind that you really don’t want to go away. Ever.
While on these drugs, I attended my oldest child’s 8th birthday. I could interact with the guests. I attended a few meetings, including one with lawyers where I had to decide whether we should sue someone. We decided that we had no choice but to sue and got that ball rolling. I still couldn’t get deeply involved in anything, but at least I could have a few small interactions. Luckily, the business had been running without me for 4 weeks now. The team had stepped up.
Conscious Decision to Get Off The Pain Killers
On the downside, I spaced out a lot. I would stare at an empty power point presentation for hours, trying to think of something to say, lost in my pleasant, numb state of mind. Or I’d go down a tangent rabbit hole, searching for useless information. I can see why people get hooked on these drugs. They are fun. After the second prescription refill, I stopped. First, I wasn’t improving — I was able to tolerate my situation better. Second, I didn’t want to become an opiate addict. It took me about three long, long days to stop missing them. I haven’t touched an opiate since.
The doctor had also given me a prescription to visit a spine and rehab center. I decided to hold off on this to see if the narcotics would help me sleep better, thus increasing the rate of healing. Although sleep helped my sanity, physically I was not improving. On a pain scale, I had gone from a 10 to an 8. The sleep helped, but not much. I still stayed confined to the house. My darkest thoughts had mostly passed. But as a productive member of society and loving family member, I had nothing to offer. It was still all about making the pain go away.
I had stalled out. At this point, I had some decisions to make.
I had a heavy travel schedule looming on the horizon. I’d have lots of meetings. I would be giving many presentations to live audiences. The meetings and speaking didn’t bother me — I could do those in my sleep. What scared the shit out of me was sitting on an airplane for 3 hours. And spending the night in a hotel room without my cache of bean bags, large pillows, and foam rollers. At some point, I realized I could not subject myself to multiple days of unknown levels of pain. I took a deep breath and I canceled a trip to a trade show in Chicago. This was extremely hard for me to do on both a professional and personal level. I hated the idea that my injury was making me break commitments. I hated the thought of letting people down.
As this situation progressed, I started to gain incredible mental clarity. Things I wanted to focus on stood out in bright bold letters. And, more importantly, things I never wanted to do again were unmistakably clear. I developed a new mantra of “Never complain, never explain.” And never ask for permission.
I started doing what I wanted to do and I stopped making excuses or being nice and polite about saying no. I stopped answering emails that didn’t interest me. It suddenly didn’t matter if someone else got bent out of shape because my life didn’t fit into their agenda. Instead of worrying about that, I could just do what I wanted to do because I wanted to do it. “This person is probably going to get pissed off,” I’d think. And? Aha moment. That doesn’t matter anymore. Lesson learned: Other people’s responses to my open and honest communication are not my responsibility.
In a strange way, even under this veil of constant pain, I was happy with this newfound wisdom. The pain, however, was pushing me past the edges of sanity. At this point, I was only showering once every three days. Changing my clothes had become almost impossible.
“The body isn’t fragile. It isn’t broken. But without enough motion, daily proper motion, we are all slowly dying in place.” — Pete Egoscue
Finally, a doctor friend of mine talked some sense into me. He listened to my situation and said: “Drop what you are doing, get an MRI, and get physical therapy. You should not be in pain this long. I can’t believe no one has told you this by now.”
So that’s what I did. I remembered that prescription for physical therapy the doctor gave me. I called and asked for the first available appointment.
It turns out, of course, that all the “stretching” I was doing was actually making it worse — reopening the wound, so to speak. Unbeknownst to me, bending over and touching your toes in this condition is about the worst thing you can do. The exercises and stretches that they showed me didn’t make any sense at all. Lying face down on the floor and then propping yourself up on your elbows for 5 minutes? Squeezing a ball between your legs? These seemed ridiculous. But I tried them. And I noticed an immediate improvement. For the first time in 4 weeks, I had hope.
The Best Books I Found
I also wanted to find out why this injury happened, how I could fix it, and how I could do my best to make sure it never happened again. Nothing I can say here will do justice to the information I learned in the following four books:
Treat Your Own Back by Robin A. McKenzie
8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back by Esther Gokhale
Pain Free by Pete Egoscue
The Great Pain Deception: Faulty Medical Advice is Making Us Worse by Steven Ray Ozanich
The first book, Treat Your Own Back, is what they used at the physical therapy sessions. It’s a great resource and I wish I would have had it on day one of my adventure. The next book, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back, shows how to sit in such a way as to lengthen the spine. It takes a few minutes to get the hang of it, but I could feel an immediate difference. It also discusses how to walk, bend over, etc., in such a way as to be healthy for your back and spine instead of detrimental to it. This book has a huge following amongst former back pain patients who, due to this book, have no more back pain.
The 3rd book, Pain Free, became my body bible that I still refer to today. It shows you how all of your body is connected, and how and why our knees, shoulders, hips, etc., eventually snap and give out. I wasn’t really aware of my myofascial system prior to this book. The simple exercises demonstrated in this book really helped my pain almost immediately and I can feel the postures pulling me into alignment each morning. I still do some of them to this day as part of my 10-minute morning routine. They keep the body lengthened and operating like a well oiled machined. Without these exercises, our bodies gradually become tightened and compressed, which leads to things getting yanked out of alignment. In short, had I been doing these exercises and postures, this never would have happened to me.
Lack Of Proper Motion Is The New Sugar. . . But So Is Repressed Anger
“We now understand that the demands of trying to maintain a false image of self in order to be accepted by, connect with, or control others, generates tremendous internal strife that is buried or repressed as rage — but is completely unfelt. It is this internalized energy that causes pain and a vast array of other symptoms, for a very specific purpose.” — Steve Ozanich
The 4th book, The Great Pain Deception, was a real eye-opener. This book was recommended to me by my friend, Joe Polish, of Genius Network fame. This book explains with great clarity how built up anger resolves itself in our bodies as injury and also makes an argument that our bodies are a lot stronger than we give them credit for. At the time, I was in the middle of a lawsuit with a business partner that had caused me a lot of frustration and anger, and I had to take him to court and go through a long process of discovery. Addressing this also helped the pain to continue to subside.
The books really hit home two simple facts: First, a life of sitting really tightens up everything, from your neck down through your spine and hips to your knees, ankles, and feet. Tightness leads to breakdowns. Second, repressed emotions can cause physical pain. At the age of 44, I had been sitting at my desk trading and writing for nearly 20 years. Despite the fact that I worked out with a trainer and did plenty of core strength exercises, my spine and legs still threw in the towel. My body was tight. And I was burying my anger.
It’s amazingly scary how the human body adapts to sitting still — but the adaptations eventually lead to the body giving out. And as humans, we are good at repressing the emotions that are awkward in social situations. This also leads to the body giving out.
The best book I found for dealing with and releasing repressed emotions? I stumbled across a book called Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender by David R. Hawkins. After I read it, I handed it to my wife. After the first chapter, she was crying with the flood of release. Let that shit go.
For other therapies, I tried acupuncture and went to a chiropractor. Neither of these did much to relieve the pain. I considered a steroid shot but in the end, decided against it. At one point I looked into surgery, but everything I heard told me to avoid this unless as a last resort.
The one therapy I found that worked really well is a massage technique called Rolfing. I wouldn’t call it a relaxing massage. Your tendons and muscles are being gently yet firmly realigned. It just gets the body back to where it was before a life of sitting took its toll. I didn’t start doing this until after I started physical therapy. I wish I had started earlier. I did ten sessions and felt like a new car.
Your Body Is Much Stronger Than You Think It Is
Today I do the daily exercises found in these books, try to walk as much as I can, work at a stand-up desk for part of the day, and drink a ton of water. In addition, I now wear barefoot shoes such as Vibram or Merrell. Our feet were made for walking barefoot, and doing so keeps everything strong and loose. When I was going through this, one of my clients said, “Remember, wake, water, walk. Do that each morning.” And I do. Wake up, drink two glasses of water, and just move, even if it is a 10-minute walk. (I like working out — but I prefer the afternoon).
In terms of food, I also eat a lot better now. Generally gluten, grain and sugar-free. And I eat a lot more protein, making sure I get a few scoops of high-quality whey or collagen powder throughout the day.
It’s good to have positive goals in life. In this case, my goal is to “never go through that crap again.” I can’t say that it is a positive goal, but it’s having a very positive effect on my life. In addition, I began working with a new trainer and, using strict form, am doing six reps of deadlifts with 300 pounds. I didn’t do deadlifts before my injury, and even if I did, I never could have done that much weight. But once you hit your 40s, if you aren’t pushing your body, you are slowly decaying. A great book for this is Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit and Sexy Until You’re 80 and Beyond by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge. After reading this, I realize that every day not exercising is a day spent decaying.
Today my back and my body are strong and pain-free.
If you are going through this, my heart goes out to you. It sucks. But there is hope.
“Until you recognize the need, the absolute requirement for taking responsibility, you will not succeed. Once you do accept the responsibility, however, the Egoscue Method never fails. Never. No drugs, no surgery, no machines, no miracles. Just You. A normal person, doing normal things.” — Pete Egoscue