Two and a half years ago, when I was 18, I fell down the basement stairs in my house.
After being rushed to the hospital, I found out I had fractured a vertebrae. The doctor discharged me that same day, and sent me home with a prescription for pain medication and instructions to stay in bed and rest. (I later learned I probably should have stayed at the hospital, under the care of occupational therapists.) But the pain was so severe the medication only helped for an hour or so.
Three days later, I found out I'd broken my pelvis, too—the pain in my back was so intense, I hadn’t felt the pain in my hips.
Before the fall, I was in the gym lifting four to five days a week, doing cardio nearly every day. But afterward, I was confined to a bed for eight weeks.
When my bed rest was complete, I started to see a physical therapist. But my back wasn't responding to the exercises we were doing, and I didn't see much progress.
I switched doctors, and my new neurosurgeon laid out a grim future: The pain I felt in my back would take about a year to dissipate, and I'd probably still have some sort of ache for the rest of my life.
After a year, I was still in constant pain. I couldn’t carry groceries or take out the garbage. I couldn’t ride in the car without being in immense pain. Even hugging people hurt. Sometimes it was so bad that I had to cancel on dinners or parties with friends and family. The anxiety I had long suffered from kicked into overdrive—I was in a constant cycle of stressful thoughts.
A year and a half after my injury, my doctor said we’d need to consider other options, including surgery, if I didn't see any improvements within the next six weeks.
Don’t accept a life of pain—mental or physical. Find a way to improve it.
When my sister and brother-in-law heard about this, they recommended I see a friend of theirs, a super knowledgeable exercise physiologist and trainer in the area, Joel Seedman.
I didn’t want to go. I was so afraid to work out, and scared of hurting myself again. But I really didn’t want to have surgery either.
Although I was apprehensive about meeting with Joel, during our first meeting, I was immediately so impressed by his knowledge. I felt like he really, truly wanted to help me see progress.
He put me through a series of foundational strength and balance exercises to get a sense of my abilities, and he determined we'd pretty much need to start from the beginning.
We began with foot and ankle stability work, to strengthen my balance and my core.
In addition to a weekly in-person session, Joel prescribed me exercises to do on the days I wasn’t training with him. The focus would be on strengthening my back muscles around the injury, and my core, which meant a lot of single-leg balances and core strengtheners like planks—all using just my bodyweight.
Even though I was nervous about injuring myself again, I was completely dedicated to my home workouts, determined to gain strength. And I began progressing pretty quickly.
After just three weeks, I began to feel a little less pain. I increased my sessions with Joel to twice a week. We started incorporating more exercises, adding the tiniest amount of weight to the moves. My balance improved tremendously. I started to feel stronger.
Six weeks later, my pain had drastically improved—enough so that my doctor no longer thought surgery would be necessary. I was getting better.
I started doing squats, Romanian deadlifts, rows, chest presses, and core exercises. My workouts at home ranged from 30 minutes, to an hour and 15 minutes, depending on the day. I continued the balancing exercises with Joel, but they got progressively harder and harder as we started adding weight. My core was getting stronger, my back was improving. Slowly but surely, I was getting stronger and healthier.
Then, one day, I realised: I didn’t feel any pain in my back anymore.
I still train with Joel twice a week, but he also gives me a full plan to do on the days without him. I do full-body workouts every day: Three times a week, I use heavier weights; four times a week, lighter weights.
My routines typically include different variations of squats, bent-over rows, planks, Romanian deadlifts, chest presses, negative pushups, negative pullups, overhead presses, and stability exercises.
On lighter days, I also do higher-intensity cardio—I love spin classes on a Peloton bike. And then, on heavier days, I go for a walk in my neighbourhood.
Now, almost 10 months after starting the strength routine, my pain is completely gone—far from the lifetime of mild pain the doctor predicted. I work out every day. I'm able to ride in the car without pain, carry groceries, walk for extended periods of time, and exercise with heavy weights. I don’t feel the need to sit or lie down to recover during the day.
"There’s a pretty incredible light at the end of the tunnel."
I am, of course, obsessed with proper form now to prevent future injury. And I still incorporate a lot of balancing exercises to keep my core strong.
The biggest improvement, though, is I’m not afraid anymore. After getting injured, I was so fearful I might fall or injure myself. I was fearful that my own body wouldn't be strong enough to support the broken bones. But now, that's all in the past.
Being free of all that fear and anxiety is liberating. I am so much happier.
CALI'S NUMBER ONE TIP
Don’t accept a life of pain—mental or physical. Find a way to improve it. There are so many options and ways to improve—for me, it took faith, therapy, and working out every day. There’s a pretty incredible light at the end of the tunnel—but you have to look for it first.
This article originally appeared in Women's Health US