The first symptoms of sciatica struck while I was sitting in anatomy class during my senior year of high school. My left leg felt restless and tingly. It stuck around for a few weeks and flared up after doing a Christmas haul at the mall, carrying heavy loads to my car. I woke up the next morning in so much pain that I opted out of my school ski trip to Utah. Fourteen hours on the road would have been excruciating. I went to urgent care and then an orthopedic physician where an MRI confirmed two bulging discs: L4-L5 and L5-S1.
This is where my run with spinal care, orthopedics and physical therapy began. People talk about life-changing moments, when the world is suddenly flipped upside down. From then on, everything is different. But it doesn’t always work like that. When the MRI revealed two bulging discs, I didn’t feel this way. The pain was minimal, nagging at best. I was unfamiliar with this type of injury and there wasn’t a specific incident or accident that caused it. Besides, I was 18 years old and my doctors were hopeful.
The doctors orders were: sleep with a pillow between your knees, invest in a comfy bed, and avoid any high impact activities. Everyone asked me why I was sitting out of volleyball on the sidelines, was I hurt? What happened? The answer was worse because of how precautious it seemed: “Playing is a risk. It could make my symptoms worse.” My discs had slipped out of alignment, not yet torn through nor herniated, but jumping or diving on the court could cause that.
It wasn’t until a few years into living with it that I felt the weight of the situation and the impact it would have on my everyday life. Road trips, college classes, study sessions, and serving wore me down and aggravated symptoms. We all want to sit down and relax after a long day. But what are you supposed to do when sitting is what torments you? Out of all the sensations we feel as humans, nerve pain is of a different breed. Radiating down the back of my leg, the sciatica would fester, manifesting in its various forms: burning, stabbing, throbbing, tingling, shooting and/or numbing. Soon I started to feel various muscle groups tightening up and developing aches and pains. I knew the pain was deeply embedded when I was given morphine in the ER (I had a nasty case of norovirus) and the sciatica nerve pain barely faded away.
For five years I went to PT. After the third run I realized that I had to do my homework consistently and forever – yes for-ev-er they said. So I got serious about my therapeutic routine, I practiced twice a week at the gym for two years. I felt like an outsider doing bridges and clamshells on my mat while people grunted and sweated around me. Lacking guidance, I pushed myself too far and would do more harm than good. I’d feel relief for an hour or so and then my legs would shake uncontrollably and the nerve pain would creep in. Wasn’t it supposed to go away if I did these exercises?
Over the 11 years of living with sciatica I tried out various treatment methods:
- Muscle relaxants
- Oral steroids
- Therapeutic Exercise
It seemed like I had exhausted all my options. Surgery was next in line and I desperately wanted to avoid it. Fortunately, around this time, a friend introduced me to Mark St. Peter and Dynamic Balance. During the consultation and evaluation I noticed how the process was different: Mark gave me the time and space to explain my history in detail. We began the Manual Therapy Triad treatment immediately.
Little by little the bodywork broke down the scar tissue and released built up tension. Mobility training challenged me to activate dormant muscles. Rebuilding foundation strength was always the center of my PT routines but the DB method was far more detailed and nuanced. I thought I knew Pelvic Tilt well – I’d had five years and three different therapists who had taught me. But I struggled with learning the detailed Foundation 5 version that Mark St. Peter practiced. My mind was exhausted before my body was. Focusing to engage muscles that had been dormant for so long was tiring!
After one year at Dynamic Balance I went off of narcotics. I felt confident enough to go on a month-long trip to Mexico, using the Foundation Five and doing self-massage with a tennis ball along the way. The last bit of traveling set me back but I knew Mark would be there when I returned to help me and guide me through the pain.
Over the last three years I’ve made significant progress, reaching new plateaus and continuing to maintain relief. So much fear had been instilled in me over the years. I was afraid to move, to stretch too far, to lose my balance, to fall down stairs. Mark helped me tease the thresholds of both body and mind, relieving muscle tension and easing my concerns.
During Shelter-In-Place I was worried about backtracking and losing my safety net (MSP’s bodywork can achieve wonders in combatting a flare up). Being cooped up inside and wanting to expend that built-up energy has been wearing. I tend to want to bike harder up the hill and work out more intensely. I’ve thrown my back out a few times doing so. But I feel better knowing I have the tools to work on my own recovery.
I’m still learning my limits and exploring my abilities. It’s especially difficult because the underused muscles tend to go into protection mode by spasming or tensing up when exploring the newly-gained territory. I find it hard to not get too excited and take big leaps rather than small steps. Just like lives can change slowly, sometimes the recovery process can be slow and ongoing as well. There still hasn’t been a magical, life-changing moment when I’ve become suddenly cured, but there have been many breakthrough moments that I couldn’t have reached without Mark’s guidance, expertise and commitment to healing.