Hello Friends. I took a surfing trip last weekend to Mexico. I found an awesome surfboard to rent. The waves were perfect. The weather was perfect. Everything was going as planned. I went out on the first morning and caught two nice waves. Sweet! On wave three, tragedy struck.
I caught the wave, but with bad form. Being out of practice on a fast breaking wave, I leaned forward trying to get off the crest, but I didn’t make it. My board slammed to the wave trough. I landed the fall, but on impact, I felt a searing pain in my low back. I had just bulged a lumbar disk. (Want is a bulged disk?) Having bulged the same disc a few times before, I knew exactly what happened the second I felt it. Fuck! How could this happen? To me? Now? After all my core strength and flexibility work?
Thanks to my coach and physical therapist, Dr. Rob Jones, I knew exactly what to do for damage control. Rob has successfully treated many pro and olympic athletes and is my “go to” guy for athletic injuries. Years prior, when treating me for a similar injury, Rob had taught me the McKenzie Method, developed by the venerable Robin McKenzie. The importance of employing the best coaches cannot be overstated because this type of knowledge is true power in these situations.
I knew the first thing to do was to get out of the water and put my back into extension ASAP. Time is of the essence in these situations. Getting into spinal extension within minutes of a bulge can have a
massive impact on healing time. I paddled in, collapsed on the beach, and started doing McKenzie exercises, leash still attached to my ankle and other surfers wondering what the fuck the weirdo on the beach was doing. After 20 minutes of spinal extension exercises, I headed back to my hotel to think about what just happened.
Why did this happen?
Trying to ward off depression and not take continuous shots of cheap tequila while I watched other surfers from a beach chair, I had an eternity to analyze my situation.
- I usually drink a gallon of water a day. On my travel day, I couldn’t bring my water on the plane. I probably only drank a third of a gallon of water that day. My spinal hydration suffered big time.
- I spent a day sitting in cars and airplanes and didn’t take precautions to protect and correct my posture. Most disk bulges occur as the result of cumulative postural errors and overstretching of the spinal ligaments that act as retaining walls for the disks. Travel days are especially hard on these tissues, especially if you’ve had a disc bulge in the past.
- I was hyper excited to get into the water and catch some waves. I woke up, slammed a coffee, drove for 30 minutes, got out of the car, and paddled out. No stretching. No warm up. No water. Yes, I was a complete dumb-dumb.
What I should have done
- Stay loose and keep good posture on travel days. On my travel day, I should have put my spine into extension before and after each flight. I also should have put a lumbar roll behind my back as I drove the rental car. I should have spent extra time stretching the night after the travel day and the following morning.
- Hydrate. I should have been the most annoying passenger possible by asking for water continuously during the flights. Then I should have bought expensive bottles of water in the airports and made sure to pound a ton of water before bed that night.
- Warm up Properly. I should have resisted my excitement and not rushed into the water. Instead, I should have spend a good 30 minutes warming up and making sure I had good thoracic mobility and hip mobility before paddling out.
- Obey the rules of form. When I knew that I was going to wipe out, (I was falling from the crest of a fast breaking wave) I should have lowered my center of gravity and maintained lordosis. Instead, I ignored proper surfing form and tried to hold on to the wave in a hunched over position. When the board slammed down onto the water, my spine was not in a position to absorb the impact safely.
How the Rest of the trip went.
Thanks to the McKenzie exercises, I recovered partially enough in 18 hours to get a few more surf sessions on my trip. (McKenzie exercises, by the way, should be a part of every athlete’s toolbox. Thank you Rob!) Any doctor would have told me not to return to the water because a bulge can get worse if not cared for. However, I am a stubborn SOB and I could not handle the thought of missing out on one of my few surfing trips of the year. This decision probably set me back on healing time, but I was prepared to pay a price for a few waves. It was worth it. The next day some surfer friends I had met invited me on a boat trip to a remote reef break. We had the whole break to ourselves! Every pop up hurt my back like a mofo, but I kept doing McKenzie exercises on my board between sets. Despite the pain, it was a magical experience to be the only few people on a beautiful reef break like that. I wouldn’t have missed that experience for a world of pain…
Which is exactly what I got on the plane ride home! Holy Shit that hurts. I’m back home now, in recovery mode. That means no squats or dead lifts, a fresh round of mobility training, core strengthening, and a strict adherence to the McKenzie Method until I’m fully healed.
Learn from my mistakes!
Once again, I have been humbled and educated by my old friend “pain”. (“Hello old friend!”) As much as I preach about core strength and mobility, I made a series of poor choices that led me to this injury. No matter how strong or flexible you are, your body is not bombproof. Especially when you’re excited to go out and tear it up surfing, snowboarding, rock climbing, or playing ball, do not ignore your posture, your hydration, or your mobility. Understand how your spine works! Keep calm and remember to protect yourself with good form. Lesson thoroughly learned. Surf’s up!
Check out this post about Surfing and owning my fear.