In November of 2018, I was starting to get into the best shape of my adult life–I was exercising 4-5 times a week, eating reasonably, had shed the last of the pregnancy weight less than 6 months postpartum with my second, and I was seeing my stomach muscles for the first time in, well, ever.
Things were good.
Then, during a particularly intense core workout, something tweaked in my back right as I was rolling up from the weight bench. Since it was right around Thanksgiving, I decided to take the next several days off, sure that it was just an overuse injury and that I would bounce right back.
But here we are, more than two years and thousands of dollars in treatments later, and I still have a less-than-stellar back and have yet to be able to hop back onto the consistent-exercise train.
HOWEVER, I’m also not in constant pain, and I’m able to at least do many activities without first having to think long and hard about how to position my body to meet with the least amount of discomfort. I’m also able to pick up my children (even my oldest), hold my baby for long periods of time, and do light physical activity like gardening or housework (which, trust me, are things I definitely don’t take for granted anymore).
If you’re struggling with back pain or know someone that is, here’s what I’ve learned over my particular journey with it over the past two years.
Disclaimer: I’m obviously not a health professional, so be smart and do your own research before just taking my word for things. There are also affiliate links to products mentioned below, which means I may get a small commission on any purchases you decide might be beneficial for you.
First Stop: Physical Therapy
After over a month of constant back pain, it was clear that rest alone (even rest coupled with ibuprofen) was not going to cut it, so I booked an appointment with a physical therapist who was particularly specialized in working with people with back pain.
As my husband got his degree in pre-physical therapy and had every intention of going into it as a profession, I had nothing but the highest of hopes for the outcome of my physical therapy experiment. I planned to go a few times, obtain some specialized exercise plans, and be well on my way to a full and quick recovery.
Now, it might have just been that particular physical therapist, but I was distinctly unimpressed after my first couple of visits. He told me things that I felt were obvious (like to only do stretches and exercises that helped to soothe the pain rather than exacerbate it) and didn’t tell me where my pain was originating from—just that I had no herniated discs, that back pain was “complicated,” and that I could try steroid shots for several hundred dollars a pop. He did try a back manipulation (a fancy way of saying he cracked my back), which did offer some temporary relief, but nothing in the way of lasting change.
I stopped going after a few visits when it was clear we weren’t getting anywhere—the exercises weren’t changing anything, even after I did them for about a month, and I was just getting frustrated.
At this time, a former neighbor of mine had just graduated with his PT degree, and he agreed to come have a look at my back to see if he could offer any insight. He was much better in his analysis and suggestions, but since he was not going to be starting his PT practice locally, I couldn’t continue to see him. He did, however, offer me a temporary lifesaver that at least made me functional again—a medical SIJ belt that I wore 24/7 (even while showering) to help shore up my lower back joint that was causing all the problems.
I didn’t love wearing the belt (I had to wear it super tight, which meant that it gave me a huge muffin top, as it pushed all the skin and muscles and fat around my midsection up), but it did help lessen my pain significantly and at least had me attempting to exercise again after a few months of having to take a full break.
Then I got pregnant.
Back Injury + Pregnancy = No Bueno
When I got pregnant, I had to stop wearing the belt almost immediately, as there was no way I could cinch it as tight as I needed to for the support (for obvious reasons). Ibuprofen was also no longer an option for especially painful days, and I was nervous to try anything brand new (like chiropractic work) while pregnant, especially when I had to be put on bed rest soon after going into my third trimester because of severe preterm labor.
For most of the pregnancy, I had two main goals — try to keep the baby inside for as long as humanly possibly (we made it to 35 weeks and 5 days) and to not be crushed from the constant pain. Literally, the only reason I was able to function physically during this time at all was by stretching every single morning and evening for about 10 minutes apiece.
Second Stop: Traditional Medicine
While hesitant to try something more alternative like chiropractic work (which, quite frankly, scared me), I was experiencing so much pain during my pregnancy that I was hoping for some relief–any relief–that wouldn’t put the baby more at risk of an early delivery, or, if I couldn’t get relief during the pregnancy, I at least wanted a solid diagnosis so I could know what in the world was the matter with me.
My doctor recommended I get a specific kind of MRI that didn’t pose any risks to the baby, and I decided to give it a go.
Now, if you’ve never had an MRI before, it is a very odd, very disconcerting experience. You are put into a tiny tube (which, though I’m not generally claustrophobic at all, was hard for even me to handle), and all of a sudden, loud, headache-inducing hammering noises whir constantly around you, as if you were in the dead middle of a full-on construction zone with jackhammers and everything. They did give me headphones and played some music for me, but it was hard to stay calm and 100% still in such an uncomfortably tight space with extremely loud hammering noises all around me. (Oh, and the baby HATED it—he was freaking out and kicking the entire time, which made me feel terrible.)
Despite the uncomfortable experience, it would have all been worth it if I’d gotten some definite answers. But when the MRI results came back, they were pretty unhelpful—there were signs of minor degenerative arthrosis, which is a type of arthritis common as you get older, but that was it. While I was a bit young to be exhibiting signs of it, my doctor said that it didn’t explain the amount of back pain I was having, so I was basically back at square one.
Third Try’s the Charm?
After delivering my baby, I booked an appointment almost immediately with a prenatal and postpartum chiropractic specialist because by that point, I was pretty fed up with traditional medicine, which was offering me no answers and no solutions other than lots of pain medication (no thank you) or expensive steroid shots which “may or may not” help (also, no).
My back was so misaligned from a hard pregnancy on top of the back injury that my chiropractor didn’t dare to try and fix it all in one appointment—she was worried I wouldn’t be able to function from the soreness and pain of the realignment (and even with what she did that first time, I was pretty uncomfortable for several days after, with almost constant headaches).
I’d always been skeptical of chiropractors before because I’d heard many people say that they just basically make it so that you have to keep coming back to them and don’t really fix anything long-term—just temporarily. When I brought this up to my chiropractor (because I will often just come right out and get the opinion from the horse’s mouth, so to speak), my chiropractor actually explained things in a way that made a lot of sense to me—she said that the way we move and sit and align our bodies is often so ingrained that unless we frequently take the opportunity to realign it properly many times in a short time period, it will just snap back to what it is used to. She said that a good chiropractor should be able to get you pretty well fixed within a few months and then just require a couple of “tune ups” every now and then to make sure you aren’t falling back into bad habits.
Since traditional medicine had been such a colossal failure, I decided to fork over the money (all out of pocket–my insurance covered nothing) for a dozen visits, and I started going twice a week.
While it didn’t fix the dull lower back pain that never seemed to go away, those visits did wonders for restoring me to basic functionality again—they allowed me to be able to withstand the physical burden of nursing my baby and taking care of my other children and household, and they provided some long-awaited relief from the all-over general back pain I was having by that point, as well as restored some feeling into my mid-back, which had been tingling and/or numb for months on end.
However, my chiropractor said over and over again that until I started coupling chiropractic work with massage, I probably wasn’t going to get the full benefits because my muscles were so tightly knotted that they kept forcing my back out of place again.
Unfortunately, I never got a chance to fully test that theory because we moved away from that particular specialist just a few months into my treatments.
Specialized Massage Therapy
While the visits to the chiropractor had helped me reach daily functionality again, I missed exercise. Every time I tried to return to the gym or go for a run, my back tended to immediately flare up again soon after. Clearly, whatever was causing the problem still hadn’t been “fixed.”
It was time to call in on a few tips I’d received—namely, the tip by my chiropractor to couple chiropractic work with massage, and a tip from my sister, who had been swearing by her specialized massage therapist for years.
There were two main things that had held me back from trying out chiropractic work and massage (other than that I was just plain nervous to go into uncharted territory), and they were first, the money that both required out of pocket with no help whatsoever from our health insurance, and second, the question of arranging childcare while I went in for my appointments. I’ll handle the money question in a minute when I do a cost analysis, but as for the childcare, I was fortunate that for the chiropractor, she had extended business hours that allowed me to go right after my husband got off of work, and with the massage therapist, my mom graciously agreed to watch our kids (as we were living with her and my stepdad at the time).
The massage therapist I chose wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill, let’s-get-a-relaxing-massage kind of therapist. In fact, I hesitate to even use the word “massage” because the muscle work he does tends to be deeply uncomfortable–even painful–and often evokes strong emotional reactions as your body releases all of its pent-up stress and feelings. The work he basically does is to take all the different muscle fibers and make sure they’re properly separated and in the right place, and trust me, the massages are anything but relaxing.
However, they also totally WORK.
Now, I’m not totally 100% pain-free yet, or at least not regularly. I did, however, have a few glorious hours after one particular session when I literally felt no pain for the first time in over two years, and it felt FABULOUS. (Then, that same evening, my toddler threw a tantrum while I was holding him, and he threw my back right back out. But that pain-free afternoon at least gave me hope that it could happen for me again!)
At the beginning, he started me at 60- to 75-minute sessions once or twice a week, then we went to about every 2-3 weeks once things were feeling significantly better. Unfortunately, we moved away before we could get my back returned to the pain-free state I now know it can get to with this treatment, but I’m definitely a lot closer. At this point, my plan is to make the two-hour drive to see him as often as I can swing it, which I’m hoping to be around once a quarter.
Until I’m basically free of low-level pain, I’m not currently trying to exercise vigorously at all because experience thus far has taught me that that tends to hurt right now instead of help. However, I’ve had a lot more general energy and good feeling since starting the massage work, and I also have a much freer and greater range of motion than I did before, which I’m trying to maintain as best as I can between massages.
Right now, that maintenance looks like trying to get in a decent number of steps every day, stretch regularly, and then finally (and crucially) use the foam roller I got for Christmas.
I didn’t know if the foam roller would be a total dud or not (having never used one), but now I can say, I honestly don’t know how I did so long without it. Each night (and often multiple times throughout the day), I carefully roll out my back and shoulders, as well as my hamstrings when they’re tight. This has contributed greatly to my relief from pain as well as relief from the stress and tension I often hold in my body, and I swear that it’s helping me to sleep a lot better, too.
(Seriously, if you deal with back pain or tight shoulders or whatever, this foam roller might just be the best $27 you’ve ever spent.)
I hesitated to try “alternative” methods to treat my back pain for so long because I was worried about how much they’d cost since I knew my insurance wouldn’t cover a penny. While everyone’s health insurance is wildly different, I’m sharing my numbers so that if you or someone you know is dealing with back pain, you have more information at your disposal so that you can deploy your funds as wisely as possible.
- $200/visit with insurance (deductible hadn’t been met yet)
- Total spent on PT: $400
- Note that my former neighbor did not charge me; if the rate had been the same, then I would have spent $600 on PT
Traditional Medicine (MRI)
- $130 for MRI (this was after our deductible was met for that year)
- $15 for copay to authorize MRI
- Total spent on traditional medicine: $145
- $45 for a 20-minute session
- Total spent (thus far) at the chiropractor: $479
- $75 for a 60-minute session
- $105 for a 90-minute session
- Total spent (thus far) at the massage therapist: $480
If you only look at the totals spent in each, then obviously the numbers would favor the more “traditional” methods of treating back pain. However, those visits and the MRI did very little towards treating the root of the issue, so I basically spent $545 to get an “I don’t know what’s wrong with you.”
Comparing cost per visit, the more “alternative” methods blow traditional medicine out of the water—not only did I experience immediate relief after each of those visits to the chiropractor and massage therapist, but they also paved the way for more lasting healing.
To be honest, having dealt with many random medical issues over the past six or so years, I have become a bit jaded with traditional medicine. While I think it definitely has its place (you bet I’ll still take antibiotics for strep throat or plan to have my babies in a hospital because of all the after-birth complications I’ve had), I’ve also learned for myself not to discount “alternative” therapies and treatments, which have often proved much more effective for me.
My greatest wish is that traditional medicine would be a little more flexible and adopt practices and theories and studies from more holistic, alternative sources so that everyone could just truly get the best all-around healthcare they needed. As that isn’t going to happen anytime soon, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better—far better, in fact—to save up the money and pay out of pocket for something that’s more likely to actually work rather than just be a band-aid solution.
Of course, don’t be stupid about it—do your research, get referrals, ask about your specialist’s background. My massage therapist came with glowing references, a nursing degree, and many certificates and years of elite-level experience, and my chiropractor was recommended to me by a neighbor I trusted, had stellar reviews online, and was specialized in prenatal and postpartum care, which I needed.
In the end, trust your gut. If you know something is wrong but aren’t getting the help you need from your healthcare professional, then find another healthcare professional, even if it’s one in an “alternative” field. Ask around. Do a little digging. Look for some books on the topic (make sure to check the author’s credentials!). It’s because of this that I’ve found that diet–not steroids–is the best way to keep my autoimmune disease under control. It’s because of this that I’m able to actually have the range of motion again that I need to function in my daily tasks rather than being crippled by pain and unable to do the most basic of things, like picking up my baby or weeding the garden.
So sit down and make a list of things that would help out YOUR physical and mental health this year. Is it therapy? A night at a hotel just by yourself to get some peace and quiet? Acupuncture? A consult with a nutritionist? Someone (or some company) to take care of delivering healthy meals to you a few times a week? A punch pass to a specialized yoga studio?
Being such a frugal person myself, I’m usually tempted to just go the cheapest route—or what I THINK is the cheapest route, at any rate. But there are flaws with that thinking—the cheapest route is not always the best for you long-term, and often, what you really need might not even be as expensive as you think it’s going to be. If I’d kept going the traditional route, it would have led to steroid shots (at $300 apiece, with a minimum of around 3-4 to start making a difference) and maybe surgery, which likely would have cost around $1,500 or more. When I looked at it like that and also saw that I got DEFINITE relief from choosing other therapies (not just the “maybe” relief of a surgery or a shot), it made more sense for me to fork out the money myself rather than just go through channels that would accept my insurance.
(Another tip? You can almost always save money on therapies like massages or chiropractic work by buying a punch pass or paying for multiple visits at once, and by paying upfront with cash. You can also ask if they have a referral program or follow them on social media or other channels to see if they offer discounts that way. Additionally, make sure to look hard into all aspects of your insurance policy to see what really is and is not covered. When I called and spoke with someone, they said that chiropractic work was not covered at all, but later when I looked into it, they had a discount program that offered health incentives for people who joined, which included a discount through my chiropractor’s office. I discovered it too late to benefit from it, unfortunately, but I could have saved something like $80 if I’d known!)
Have you had success trying out “alternative” medicine treatments? What’s been worth it for you, and what hasn’t? Drop a comment below!