Looking to Stu McGill’s Big 3 for bulging disk pain

It was my hope for 2020 that I’d be able to run another half-marathon this year, specifically the Oklahoma City Memorial (Half) Marathon.

That is almost certainly not going to happen.

I have a bulging disk, and it’s caused me a lot of pain and inconvenience. I’m told it’s a mild protrusion, which gives me a ton of empathy for folks who have “not so mild” bulges, protrusions or disk herniations. However, it hurts pretty much constantly, causes me to be achy and it impacts my gait. I’m walking like I remember my grandfather walking, and he was 80 then.

It’s definitely impacting my weight on two fronts: I’ve become relatively sedentary and I’ve been taking a lot of Advil, which I understand can impact weight gain. How does ibuprofen impact weight gain? It’s really inflammation that does, and it appears to be a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. By “a lot of Advil,” I should note that I’m taking 4-6 per day, which is probably not a lot for many folks. It’s more than I prefer to take. But the chicken-or-the-egg scenario I mentioned is this: weight gain causes inflammation, but inflammation also causes weight gain.

Well, which is it?

In very novice terms, weight gain causes inflammation in that weight gain triggers a response by the body that alters your hormones and metabolism. And inflammation impacts weight gain in that it hampers weight loss. When your body is inflamed, the last thing it will focus on is weight loss, meaning ultimately that the body is certainly susceptible to weight gain. Inflammation puts your body into survival mode.

So, my No. 1 job right now is to heal my back.

My symptoms became especially acute after some visits to a chiropractor, who might have been a little aggressive in his treatment. He described himself as an “old-school bone cruncher,” and to be honest, it felt really good after the first visit. But there came this nagging soreness in my back that I attributed to the second and third visit, and it just got worse and worse and worse. I probably had five visits in all.

To be clear, I don’t blame chiropractic. What I do recognize, however, is that I’ve probably had a festering, underlying back issue without glaring symptoms for years. Getting chiropractic treatment without knowing that variable was foolish on my part. But in recent days I’ve recalled signs from years past that I had a lower back issue:

When I worked in Love’s Travel Stops’ corporate office, I’d go to trucking shows in Louisville and Dallas, and I’d be on my feet for hours every day. My back would kill me at the end of one day, much less three days for the full show. To be transparent, I spent a lot of time sitting down also, as I needed to work from a laptop. A recent work trip with my current employer to the University of Arkansas was pretty rough on my back as well. I stood for three hours and sat in a car for six.

Standing or sitting for long periods of time isn’t the only thing that I recognized.

When I’ve been in a good rhythm with my running, I’ve probably been guilty of over-exercising. As I’ve gained weight and continued to run, especially with my recent end-of-2019 efforts, I recognize that the added weight just served as compression punishment on my spine.

Heck, at this point, I might forget running. I’d love to become an avid walker.

Then there’s ergonomics and posture. My laptop is not at eye-height. I look down at my phone. I slouch. My shoulders are hunched.

I’m getting way ahead of myself. After three or four weeks of intense pain down my right leg, I finally relented and went to a doctor, specifically to get an MRI done. The MRI revealed a mild disk bulge, according to the doctor. However, that’s not the only thing this doctor told me. When I asked him about his opinion on chiropractic relative to this injury, he shook his head rather condescendingly and said, “It might not have caused it, but it sure didn’t help.”

And then he declared that if he were me, he’d never see a chiropractor again.

I asked him about being able to get back to running. His answer was equally curt.

“Um, no. Find a new hobby.”

And his prescription was a week’s worth of Predinsone and some Flexeril, and an appointment with a neurosurgeon. I took the Predinsone, and it helped. The Flexeril just made me sleepy, and did not curb the pain at all. And I’m not seeing a neurosurgeon about a mild disk bulge. To me, that’s a nuclear solution to a relatively mild problem. I wasn’t turned off by the experience of getting an MRI, but the doctor’s attitude toward the issue, to me, supported my hesitance to go along with what he or any doctor says just because of the diploma on their wall.

Golden State basketball coach Steve Kerr is vehemently anti-back surgery after what it did to him. He was quoted by the Washington Post as saying, “I can tell you if you’re listening out there, stay away from back surgery. I can say that from the bottom of my heart. Rehab, rehab, rehab. Don’t let anyone get in there.”

But let’s talk rehab. What is an in-person physical therapist going to do for me that I can’t find on YouTube, from a licensed physical therapist? Again, I’m skeptical, and here’s why: We’re limited to the trained professionals in whatever area we live. It’s my belief that this is limiting, and that I should at least find out what physical therapists globally say about this issue to see if there’s some commonality. In other words, it’s highly unlikely that the physical therapists on the northwest side of Oklahoma City are any better or different than world-renowned ones who share their expertise on YouTube.

I live in the digital world though, and I’m comfortable with it.

The first exercise I found online was this back extension movement where you lie on your tummy and press up, extending your back. You do this without lifting your pelvis. I watched a lot of videos and read a lot of articles from licensed physical therapists, and this was a common exercise.

And then out of the blue, I got an automated text from the chiropractor I had recently stopped seeing, the old-school bone cruncher. I responded with details about my bulging disk, and he turned me on to Stu McGill. It appears that this friendly Canadian man is the world’s spine master. My sister-in-law, who is also a chiropractor and whom I respect immensely, agrees. In short, McGill is a big believer in diagnosing and treating back pain on your own with a process of recognizing pain-triggering movements and mastering proper movements.

He has some exercises, too. McGill calls them the Big 3:

There’s the bird dog. You get on all fours and extend an arm and the opposite leg, holding it for 10 seconds.

There’s the curl up. You lie down on your back and bend one knee. You place your hands under the small of your back and lift your head and neck ever so slightly.

And then there’s the side plank, modified to where you place the top leg over the bottom one.

Other things I’ve learned from Dr. Stu McGill include walking as therapy. Don’t walk slow. Walk fast. Walking slowly just adds load to the spine.

He’s also not a fan of stretching, which means he isn’t big on yoga and pilates.

As far as chiropractic, he supports it but he supports it conservatively. In McGill’s book, “Back Mechanic,” which I purchased, he explained that going back to the chiropractor over and over and over, over a short period of time, wasn’t a good idea. To me, it felt like he was saying: get your adjustment and then be done for a while.

However, “Back Mechanic” takes you through the process of identifying pain triggers and teaching you how to get up from a chair, get up off the toilet, tie your shoes (which triggers pain for me) and how to stand in a way or move to alleviate pain. McGill’s goal is to give the person in pain as much pain-free time during a day as possible.

Once the person is pain-free, you move toward building up spinal health by strengthening your core and minimizing spinal instability. One of the techniques McGill recommends is the “abdominal brace,” which I swear appears to me to just be, “suck your gut in.” But the book makes it clear that it’s not only that.

The pain and inconvenience have been just that — a pain and an inconvenience. But I also see the light at the end of the tunnel, and look at my glass as half-full. I’ve got a guide and a path for making sure my back stays healthy for how many ever years I get to stick around. So, ultimately, I’ll have to disagree with the emergency room doc.

The chiropractor did help.

This has been inconvenient, but it’s a major wake-up call.

Featured image from Flickr’s Creative Commons, user CJS*64:


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