My Life on Pause

How I Faced My Back Pain Fears and Started Moving Again

Let’s see, when did it get so bad?  Well that’s really a matter of opinion, but if you’re asking me directly, then the answer is September 2012. The ache just wouldn’t stop in my lower back and the potential for it to spasm seemed to be getting closer and closer together between episodes. These are the moments I call “locking up” where you can’t move at all.
woman sitting at a table with a notepad and pen journalingKeeping a journal can help you keep track of your symptoms and unload your frustrations on paper! Photo Source:

What is that phrase again? Oh yes, that’s it. “If you cease movement, death shall catch you.”  I wish I had known that sooner. The truth is I was blatantly unaware of the deadly spiral I was going down triggered by lack of movement due to fear. Or, in clinical terminology, fear avoidant. That’s right. I was so afraid of pain that I worried even the slightest movement would trigger misery.

Lack of movement became my “go to,” even with three kids to raise. 

Don’t move or it will hurt your back more was the constant “mantra” that I played over and over in my mind.

Even though I had been an avid runner for years and knew well the benefits of regular exercise, I couldn’t stop the negativity from constantly seeping into my thoughts and taking over my brain. I convinced myself that running would never be possible again. The link between movement and pain was so real to me that I decided any amount of movement would make my back hurt even more and I convinced myself that running would never be possible again.

From Runner to Couch Potato, My New Normal

So, the new norm became “do nothing” and the pain will stop. But doing nothing made it even worse.

Now, as I tried to stand for longer than five minutes my back would start to ache. What was going on? My initial response was to stand less. Less standing meant a few minutes here or there. Then I would sit or lay down. I’d tell myself to stand as long as I had to…not a minute more…not realizing that this would make it worse.

My world got smaller and smaller until fear and pain consumed my entire day. The negativity was peppered with worries about how long I could stand before the pain would kick in and sheer terror at the possibility of my back locking up.  What if my back locks up again and I can’t move? What about my kids? Who will look after them?

My family physician prescribed strong medications to relieve the pain, but I refused to take them. With so many parenting responsibilities I couldn’t risk the possibility of being doped up and unable to focus.

Medication was not an option but it seemed I was running out of options. The pain in my lower back never really went away unless I was laying down. Eventually I got to a place of being able to manage the kids’ needs, laying down. 

The Day of Reckoning Arrives

After a series of tests—CT scans, MRIs and x-rays—it was the Orthopaedic Surgeon who set me straight. His words have resonated with me to this day…

“If you don’t use it, you lose it. You are not now, and never will be, a candidate for surgery. The only thing you are a candidate for is (physical therapy) because you have made your mechanical back issues worse by not moving.  It’s sort of like a stiff elbow that you never use…it just becomes more stiff because it hasn’t been mobile.”

The knowledge that I had made my back pain worse, made me sick to my stomach.

How did I get here? How did I, the runner, become so disabled by my fear and pain?

Humbled and dizzied by what felt like a comeuppance – I got up out of the wheelchair that my husband pushed me in and slowly started taking my first steps to recovery.

That day of reckoning was September 5, 2013.  From the surgeon’s office I had my husband drive me straight to physical therapy and never looked back.

It was a very scary moment for me. But I was there and I was determined. Finally, ready to devote myself to the work of healing—however long that would take.

Walking Through the Fire

Over the next 12 weeks I literally took one baby step at a time. Through difficult daily walking exercises and core strengthening moves I slowly, very slowly, started to feel stronger both physically and emotionally. During this period of intense physical therapy, I had the chance to assess the emotions that often accompany chronic back pain. There’s no disputing that pain has a strong emotional component. A book I read explained the link between emotion and back pain and helped me figure out what was really bothering me and move forward. The book, Healing Back Pain by John Sarno, MD and regular physical therapy helped me dig deep and see where everything went wrong. For me, when the pain started my life fell apart. Others have sad or chaotic lives and pain results.

I started asking myself difficult questions that I didn’t want to face.

  • Was my constant need to lie in bed, off my feet, a way to avoid dealing with the guilt and complicated emotions I felt?
  • Had back pain become an excuse for something in my life that I wasn’t ready to face?

That’s when I decided to start journaling again. Journaling had helped me understand my feelings in the past. I used to journal when I was a runner and my back didn’t hurt.  “Write yourself free” was my mantra then. Maybe it would work for me now.

So, I started journaling my fears and tried running again, too. To my great joy (and surprise), my back wasn’t as sore as I thought it would be after spending a year with very little movement. So I kept pushing myself to ask those hard questions and to run—a little bit further each day.