Christy Collins is a young woman with an important story to share about her sacroiliac (SI) joint pain and dysfunction. Considering the prevalence of low back pain and it’s many causes, some doctors don’t consider the SI joint dysfunction as part of the diagnostic picture. Fortunately for Christy, she received a proper diagnosis early in her journey to recovery. SpineUniverse reached out to Christy to share her story.
Christy: My initial injury occurred in 2011. There were a few factors that all came together to cause my injury.
I was dealing with a knee injury at the time. I had trouble walking, which meant I wasn’t moving very much. When I did move, I limped with abnormal movement patterns. I was also out of shape. Both factors can cause SI joint dysfunction on their own.
However, the defining moment came when I was at the hospital to get an x-ray of my knees. I was having trouble walking and in a lot of pain, so I asked my mother to push me in a wheelchair. I let myself plop down hard in the chair, thinking I was about to land onto a soft cushion. I actually fell onto a thin piece of fabric stretched across a metal bar. My right hip bone slammed down hard onto the metal. I now know that impact was the moment when my SI joint ligaments were finally sprained.
SpineUniverse: What were your initial symptoms, and did they change or worsen over time?
Christy: Initially, I couldn’t tell what I might have hurt. I stood up after crashing onto the wheelchair and seemed to be walking normally. I tried to forget about it and see if the pain would go away.
But two weeks later, the full effects from the wheelchair incident emerged. I was walking through my house when I suddenly felt a “slipping” sensation in the back of my right hip. It was followed by a dull ache slightly off to the right side of my lower back.
The pain was not that bad, but I noticed I was having trouble moving my right leg. I felt like I couldn’t fully control it when I was trying to walk. When I went up steps, I couldn’t lift my right leg up far enough to put it on the step in front of me. I had to go up using my left leg only. I know that was the first time one of my SI joints locked up.
SpineUniverse: When did you seek medical attention?
Christy: I’d actually planned to see my chiropractor the next day, so I tried not to panic and waited for my appointment. When I described my symptoms to him, he immediately knew what I was talking about.
He explained that the pain was coming from my sacroiliac joint, and that my right hip bone had gotten jammed against the base of my spine. That was the reason I was having trouble moving my leg.
He was able to fix the problem quickly using his activator tool. When I left his office, I was able to walk normally. The problem was that things would never stay in place for long.
SpineUniverse: Can you tell us how you came to find a practitioner who diagnosed your problem as SI joint-related?
Christy: For the first few years, my chiropractor was the only person who seemed to understand what I was experiencing. Within the traditional medical establishment, I consulted my primary care doctor, as well as several physiatrists and one orthopaedist. My primary care doctor seemed to have no idea what I was talking about, and even the specialists sounded a little skeptical. The only advice I got at the time was to keep going to the chiropractor, if that seemed to help.
I was also referred multiple times to physical therapy, but it took me years (and 7 different people) before I found someone who was able to truly help me.
SpineUniverse: Did you ever undergo an SI joint injection to diagnose and/or to reduce inflammation and pain?
Christy: I never received an injection. I know they can be helpful, but the one doctor who offered to perform one on me didn’t seem confident in his ability to treat SI joint dysfunction. This didn’t inspire confidence in me, so I decided to pursue the more conservative approach of strengthening and physical therapy.
SpineUniverse: Were both of your SI joints affected?
Christy: Yes. At first, only the right one was affected (the one that bore the brunt of the impact when I slammed down onto that wheelchair). However, everything in the pelvis is connected, and the two SI joints work as a unit. So, after about a week, my left SI joint became affected as well. Over the next few years, my “bad” side would switch, depending on the stresses my body experienced.
SpineUniverse: Some people are predisposed to musculoskeletal problems that can cause back and leg pain. Do you have a congenital condition that affects your SI joints?
Christy: I am fortunate to not have a soft-tissue disorder, such as Ehlers-Danlos.
However, an orthopaedist told me that many of the joints in my body are hypermobile. It means the shape of my joints are less stable than other people’s, and that leaves me predisposed to injury. I believe the same is true for my SI joints, and it may be a reason why it took me so long to heal.
SpineUniverse: What did chiropractic teach you, and why wasn’t it a long-term solution for you?
Christy: I saw a few chiropractors over the course of my journey, and I came to find that there are different schools of thought within chiropractic. Some chiropractors think their adjustments can cure just about anything, or even replace traditional medical care. I don’t recommend this type.
However, some chiropractors are more closely aligned with mainstream medicine. Their goal is to use adjustments to treat musculoskeletal pain, and I think they have something to offer.
I learned a lot about the mechanics of the SI joint itself from these chiropractors. Over the course of my visits, I learned to tell whether my joints were locked, because I was able to have someone else diagnose my symptoms and then learn to identify what it felt like in my own body.
However, the adjustments themselves were not a long-term solution for me. For one thing, I was never going to get better if I didn’t build up enough muscle strength to take the stress off the ligaments that had been sprained.
I also discovered that receiving too many chiropractic adjustments had been making my joints less stable. I went on vacation for 3 weeks and wasn’t able to see my chiropractor. Instead, I used the Muscle Energy Technique to realign my joints myself. I was shocked to find that I came home from vacation better, not worse. That’s when I realized the chiropractic adjustments had been backfiring. Although they were technically putting my joints into the right place, they were putting too much stress on my ligaments and making it hard for my body to maintain a sense of balance. So, I stopped receiving them.
I don’t recommend people simply stop going to the chiropractor if their joints are truly getting stuck. I don’t think it’s possible to do the strengthening exercises you need to do if your joints aren’t moving properly.
But I do recommend people investigate alternatives, such as the Muscle Energy Technique, which was one of the keys to my recovery.
SpineUniverse: What is the Muscle Energy Technique?
Christy: The Muscle Energy Technique is a set of adjustments that a trained professional, such as a physical therapist, can perform on you or teach you to perform on yourself. It involves using your own muscle contractions to gently realign your SI joints by rotating your hip bones back into the proper position. In my experience, it’s much easier on the body than chiropractic adjustments, because you’re controlling the level of force yourself.
Learning to adjust my own SI joints was a key part of my recovery. It gave me much more freedom to live my life without having to depend on my chiropractor for regular adjustments.
SpineUniverse: How did SI joint pain affect your life?
Christy: It affected it in every imaginable way. The worst part was not just the physical symptoms but the uncertainty. I had a condition only my chiropractor seemed to understand—every other doctor I saw seemed skeptical. For a long time, I was embarrassed of the problem, and part of me wondered if I was crazy. This is partly why it took me a long time to take the problem seriously and explore all my options.
SpineUniverse: Did you consider surgery?
Christy: Yes. In 2016, I began to seriously consider it. I was starting to question whether I was ever going to get better.
I began my blog, My Sacroiliac Joint Saga, mainly to take notes for myself. My whole life was on hold, so I felt like I had nothing left to lose. I decided to treat my research like it was a job, spending hours taking notes on every article and video I came across.
In my research, I came across another blogger who mentioned thinking chiropractic adjustments could destabilize the SI joint. This is what planted the seed in my mind for the epiphany I would have after my vacation, and why I was later able to recover without surgery.
SpineUniverse: What helped you to recover?
Christy: Several factors contributed to my recovery. Looking back, the most important components were:
SpineUniverse: What advice would you offer to someone with SI joint pain and dysfunction?
Christy: First, you’re not alone. If there were answers out there for me, there will be for you, too.
I recommend keeping a journal or a blog. Looking back, I wish I’d started mine sooner. It’s only when I started taking careful, detailed notes that things really started to fall into place.
More specifically, in terms of recovery, I recommend aquatic exercise/ aquatic physical therapy to every single person who contacts me for advice. Quite honestly, I’m not sure I would have recovered without it.
Visit Christy’s blog, My Sacroiliac Joint Saga to learn more about her journey with SI joint pain.