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A young man and his bad back

How a near-30-year-old guy learned some seemingly obvious lessons.
Carissa Dale Horner /
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It’s 4:30 a.m., and like many recent mornings I wake up without my alarm. But I’m not up to get an early-morning workout at my gym. I’m not getting a jump on some unfinished work from the previous day. And I’m certainly not going out this chilly morning to walk my still sleeping (and snoring) dogs.

No, intense pain in my lower back has once again startled me awake, and now it’s time to toss and turn, curse and hope to find a position that will at least let me rest for a couple more hours until it’s really time to get up.

This is a morning ritual that has become all too familiar over the past couple months. Just six months away from my 30th birthday, I am suffering from my second herniated disk in a one-year span.

How is this possible? How does a healthy, active young man injure his back twice in such a short period of time?

A brief history
OK, fine. So I haven’t always been healthy … or active. In fact, I have been overweight my entire life. About three years ago, I finally had my fill of living a life where I was uncomfortable and unhealthy, so I started exercising regularly and eating right, and I managed to drop more than 100 pounds. I continue to follow a healthy lifestyle and aim to drop another 40 or 50 pounds to reach the point where I’d like to stay.

Apparently carrying around a bunch of extra weight can increase the “wear and tear” on one’s body. One doctor recently told me that three of the disks in my lower back are already worn out. I’m planning on living at least another four decades, and key parts of my extremely important and irreplaceable back are already shot? Well, that’s just great!

So it seems I have a couple strikes against me, but all is not lost.

Injury No. 1
A little over a year ago, I was playing a pick-up game of football with some buddies. I went to punt the ball (humiliating as it is, I was goofing off during half time, not even playing in the real game) when I felt a horrible pain in my lower back.

While I’ve been a big guy my whole life, I’ve always been strong and resistant to injuries. I assumed this was simply a pulled muscle, so naturally I played another hour or so. The ride home in my pick-up was a bit uncomfortable, but nothing like the terrible feeling when I got out.

A four-day camping trip and handfuls of ibuprofen later, I was convinced that this was no pulled muscle. Sleeping on the ground and plenty of outdoor activity with no back support really drove that point home. After days of shooting pain in my back and down my left leg, it was time to go see a doctor.

So I had the usual treatment: X-rays, an MRI, plenty of check-ups, physical therapy and the like. Unlike other minor injuries I had sustained, I treated this one seriously — the pain was bad enough that I wanted to quickly remedy the situation. And it worked.

The pain became very manageable after a couple months. So manageable, in fact, that I felt comfortable loading some friends into my truck and taking our snowmobiles out for some trail rides. I didn’t mind throwing on my chest-high waders and heading out on the river for some steelhead fishing, either. These activities — which, yes, went against the better judgment of my doctor and physical therapist — resulted in some pain the following days, but hey, I was living!

Injury No. 2
Unlike the football moment, I can’t pinpoint the exact timing of my second back injury. It may have been during a martial arts class I had been attending … it’s hard to say.

Regardless, this one was different. Instead of intense pain all at once, this started as a minor irritation, and has steadily progressed into a full-blown and still ongoing problem.

So I’ve had more X-rays. More MRIs. More physical therapy. More second opinions. Only this time, it’s not getting better. The pain just won’t go away.

The second herniated disk has knocked me out of commission. About the only thing I can do is walk the dogs, and then I must ice my back or it will seize up and hobble me even more.

This time it’s different
So now I’m intent on making sure there isn’t an injury No. 3. I have come to the realization that I am not invincible … that rushing out and participating in activities that are jarring and taxing on my back might not be my best move.

Am I a slow learner? Did I cause my own misery? Perhaps.

But I’m learning.

Over Thanksgiving, I vacationed in Washington state’s beautiful Cascade Mountains (sleeping in a bed, not on the ground), and I left the snowmobile at home. It has since snowed at home in the Seattle area, and my machine still sits, untouched.

My fishing rods, vest and waders also have a layer of dust on them.

I walk by my outdoor gear storage room, stare longingly at all of my unused toys, and shut the door, knowing I must push out all those evil thoughts that enter my impulsive mind.

Good things to come
I know that I will be back out on the rivers and mountain trails. But I also know I’ll only be out there if my body is strong and healthy enough to carry me.

So until then, I’m keeping my back loose. I’m walking. I’m stretching. I’m doing light workouts and following the advice of my doctor and physical therapist. And I’m committed to strengthening my back and myself before I pick up my hobbies again.

It may have taken me longer than most to learn these seemingly obvious lessons, but I suppose it's better late than never. And if I am indeed going to live a long, healthy life, it’s good I learned them when I did.

As a good friend keeps reminding me, “Joe, you only have one back.”

While Joe Myxter is recovering from his second (and hopefully final) back injury, he spends much of his free time outside in the great Pacific Northwest with his two dogs.