The pain started just over a year after my second daughter, Alyssa, was born in August 2001. First, a constant, dull backache, then a stabbing pain in my left hip that felt as though someone was turning a screw as tight as it could go. I was only in my mid-30s, but I was struggling to do normal stay-at-home-mom activities. Pushing a vacuum was excruciating. Standing to make dinner felt like torture.
I’d always liked to exercise — I especially enjoyed weight training and group classes like kickboxing. But when the pain started, I stopped working out and even took a medical leave from my gym membership. Unfortunately, this only exacerbated the problem. I experienced numbness and constant pain in my legs. I had trouble driving because my right leg would cramp on the gas pedal. On long car rides, I’d have to pull over every few hours to stretch my legs or be in agony.
I lived with this suffering, and with inconclusive medical tests and appointments, for years.
Then in 2008, when life began to feel unbearable, I saw a doctor who specialized in pain management. An X-ray and other diagnostic tests revealed that I had sacroiliac joint dysfunction. The sacroiliac joints (also called SI joints), located in the pelvis, are where the iliac bones and sacrum meet. The SI joint on my left side was curved and misshapen. My doctor couldn’t definitively say why it happened (though many women suffer from pelvic misalignment after pregnancy), but, in his opinion, there was no way to correct it. Instead, he performed a nerve ablation, a surgical procedure that deadens the nerve endings, in hopes of taking care of the pain. Although this gave me some relief from the pain surrounding the joint, the adjacent muscles remained chronically contracted and sore.
When the nerves regenerated themselves a year later, the crippling pain returned, so I had a second ablation. But still, the pain came back. I was 40 years old, depressed and beginning to doubt that I would ever recover.
That’s when my doctor suggested that I consider Pilates, a body-conditioning routine that emphasizes spinal and pelvic alignment, which could help support my back through breathing and core strengthening. He also thought that it could help reduce the muscle spasms resulting from the ablation.
I knew nothing about Pilates and was very afraid to go back to the gym, worried that any activity would make the pain worse. I’d been to so many doctors and been on so many medications — including an anti-inflammatory drug, prescription-strength ibuprofen and Zoloft — that I’d almost given up hope.
But I also knew that I had to do something, if only for my kids. I was saying no to them too often because of the pain.
Group Effort: Pilates, Chiropractic Care and Massage
In August 2008, I took the first step to recovery by rejoining the Life Time Fitness club in Rochester Hills, Mich. When I told the membership adviser at my orientation appointment that I was dealing with chronic pain, he referred me to Matt King, a trainer who has 12 years’ experience working with clients like me.
At our first meeting, Matt evaluated my posture and balance and could see that my muscles weren’t firing in the right place and my abs weren’t working to support my body, even during simple household tasks.
Although I was intrigued by his observations, I was hesitant to dive right in, and it took me over a year to schedule my first training session, despite Matt’s periodic check-in calls. In the meantime, I tried some group classes as well as weight machines and cardio, but because I was still in pain, I felt overwhelmed and was close to quitting the gym again.
I’m not sure why I waited so long, but as Christmas 2009 approached, I realized I needed to give myself the gift of getting healthy.
I started doing Pilates with Matt in January 2010, initially working out on the tower and reformer. This helped strengthen my limbs while my core muscles stabilized my spine. I was amazed that I felt noticeably better, even after our first session.
We began meeting twice a week at first, with plenty of homework between sessions: general stretching and activating my abdominal muscles with small, easy-to-do movements. Pilates made me feel stronger; I felt like my body was more supported.
Just as important as Pilates was the fact that Matt put a strong emphasis on a team approach to treating my pain. He recommended I also see a chiropractor, Richard Beaubien, DC, and Amanda Ramaci, a massage therapist.
Rich worked with me on muscle activation, a process that wakes up muscles that aren’t doing their job, to help stabilize the rest of the body. His work, combined with Pilates, also helped my body release a lot of the chronic tension I’d been holding on to — both in an attempt to “protect” my vulnerable SI joint, and as the result of my pain.
As my muscles gradually reactivated and rebalanced, my need for the pain medications lessened, and Rich suggested that I wean myself from them. As they ran out, I didn’t refill them. I realized I simply didn’t need them anymore.
What’s more, Rich and Matt communicated regularly about my progress. There were many days when I would have a chiropractic adjustment and then arrive at the gym for training — just as Matt was receiving a text from Rich detailing what parts of my body needed to be supported during my workout.
Of all the changes I knew I needed to make, saying yes to regular massages was perhaps the most difficult. As a stay-at-home mom, I felt like getting a massage was a luxury. I thought of what spending that money would take away from my kids and my home. The truth is that these massages were essential in helping restore my body’s alignment.
Another key to my recovery was working with Anika DeCoster, a nutrition counselor. I didn’t understand how much diet could affect inflammation. I stopped eating dairy products and noticed a huge reduction in pain. Going off gluten also helped.
Nearly Pain-Free and In Charge of My Well-Being
By October 2010, I’d stopped taking any medications. I no longer experienced constant pain and often went long periods of time completely pain-free. Nearly two years later, I am still stronger than ever. I go to the club four to five times a week, and train with Matt three of those days. We do Pilates once a week, but most of our time is spent doing what I love most — working with weights.
Do I have setbacks? Absolutely. But I recover so much more quickly from them. Matt always encourages me. He has helped me realize that getting to the next level will involve some pain, but I need to keep a positive attitude, and I now have the tools to help myself.
My daughters, Kailyn and Alyssa, are now 13 and 10 years old, and we bike and Rollerblade together. I recently started water-skiing again and taking a Middle Eastern dance class.
I realize now that periodic setbacks will happen. I just need to remember that they are temporary and get back to the basics: doing Pilates, getting massages, using the foam roller, stretching and applying muscle activation techniques. These days, the pain usually subsides in a day or two. For the first time in years, my body isn’t controlling me. I am in charge of my body.