We recently met Ashleigh in Melbourne during our Explain Pain course. Ashleigh shared her story with us, and we asked if she would like to share it with all of you. She has very generously accepted our invitation. Our sincere thanks to Ashleigh for sharing her personal story of pain, discovery, and recovery below.
All the right things
I spent the first few years of my career believing what I was taught at university, as any young Physiotherapist would. I would go about my days mobilising, releasing, and activating all sorts of body parts. I saw people in pain all the time; but that wasn’t me. I was young, fit, healthy. I went to the gym several times a week. I’d just run a 10km fun run. Sure, I’d had injuries before; lots of them. Each time coming back stronger than the last, completing my rehab diligently and ambitiously.
So, when I hurt my back, I did “all the right things” by the book. I rested, released what was tight and went about strengthening my glutes and core. For a time, it worked. I was moving again and back in the gym which was all I really wanted; never quite pain free but I thought it would settle with time. And then it didn’t. Instead, it got worse. Slowly, inconspicuously at first.
Over the course of a few months, 5 days of the gym dropped to 4, then 3 because I just wasn’t recovering well. It wasn’t until I dropped to 1 or 2 days a week that I started to notice other patterns; sitting was becoming increasingly uncomfortable. If I were to go to a café with friends and sit on anything other than a supportive chair I’d start to ache. I started to notice my pain at work, initially at the end of the day, and then gradually more and more throughout my days until it became all consuming. When I woke each morning I would lie still, noticing how good it felt to not feel sore, only to find minutes later when I went to get out of bed that my pain was still there, unrelenting. I’d come home from work and cry to my partner, emotionally and physically exhausted by the pain.
I’d only intended to rest for a week or two…
I told myself some time off the gym would do the trick, so I stopped everything. I’d only intended to rest for a week or two and said I would go back when the pain got better. 3 months later, I still hadn’t returned. I started to rack my physio brain in search for answers. I consulted with my colleagues and convinced myself that for me to be in this much pain I must have done something quite bad. Given I wasn’t improving and had now been battling the pain for over 8 months, I took myself for an MRI, certain it would give me the answers I’d been looking for; a stress fracture? Disc injury perhaps? Neither. And nothing else of significance.
I should have been over the moon, this was good news! Instead, I felt deflated; completely at my wits end. I kept thinking about how I wished I could just be a ‘normal’ 24-year old. I worried that I’d be in pain forever. Would I ever get back to the gym? Would I ever be able to sit at a café with friends without having to call the restaurant to ask about their seating? And what about as I got older; would I be able to carry a child? Could I even continue Physiotherapy given how much it was hurting me? I thought it was my dream career. I’d worked hard at university for 4 years to get here, and now just 3 years into my career I would have to give it up. I had begun to resign myself to a future of agony.
It had to be structural, and it had to be damaged…
Besides the pain, I wasn’t enjoying the role I was in, and took a new Physiotherapist position at Upwell Health Collective in Melbourne. About a month or so in, I worked up the courage to open up to my boss, Matt, about my pain. He’d shared a pain story of his own with me. His health journey was incredible and inspiring, but that was his pain. My pain was different. It hurt to bend, to walk, to lift, to sit, to move. It hurt in the morning and at night. It got worse with activity, and slightly better with rest. My pain was real; physical. It had to be structural, and it had to be damaged. Besides, that wasn’t the part of the story I was interested in. Matt had previously worked at a spinal clinic prior to starting Upwell, so I asked if he could take a look at my back, which he very kindly agreed to do.
Every treatment up his sleeve
He came at me with every treatment he had up his sleeve. All sorts of mobilisations, releases, needles, and manipulations, none of which helped; but I wasn’t surprised, nothing so far had. He sat me down afterwards and looked at me from across the table. “You know this is chronic pain, right?” “Duh” I thought. At this point I’d been in pain for a year, of course it’s chronic; but of course, that wasn’t what he meant. He went on to explain some things about my pain; how pain works in the body and why sometimes it persists. We explored some of the danger messages my brain was receiving – I’d come from a toxic work environment where I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing. I’d stopped doing the things I love like going to the gym and catching up with friends for coffee. And I was terribly concerned with the future I’d painted for myself; quitting my career and surrendering to a life of pain and discomfort, all of which was telling my brain that it needed to ramp up its protection and thus the ferocious cycle of pain.
Grappling with dispartiy
As a young Physiotherapist, I grappled with the disparity of what I’d been taught, and what I was now hearing, but I was desperate. I started meditating daily, which was hard at first, but it got easier. Every time I had a negative thought, I immediately replaced it with something positive. I spent more time in nature. I started to exercise again, first with Clinical Pilates and eventually in the gym, allowing myself to be guided by my Physiotherapist and Exercise Physiology colleagues.
About 6 months later, something happened that I’ll never forget. I was driving home from work one night, as I did every evening. About half way through my drive, it occurred to me that I couldn’t feel my pain. ‘Surely not’ I thought. So, I wriggled to check. And wriggled some more. Nothing. No pain. No discomfort. There was no trace of the suffering I’d carried with me every day for the past 18 months, and at that moment I burst into tears. Tears of joy, relief, and freedom.
All pain is real, but you can take control of it
Healing is not linear, but every setback is just a platform for your comeback. Two years on and I can say I’m more than just pain free. I went back to the gym and recently hit a PB 100kg hip thrust, I started kickboxing, and I’ve signed up for a 10km fun run later this year. Sure, I have ‘pain days’, but usually they come if I’m stressed or rundown, and most importantly, they don’t stick around. I tell my story to a lot of my patients, which I find gives them comfort and some sense of hope. And as a Physiotherapist, I’ve done my job if I can show just one person that all pain is real, but you can absolutely take control of it.
Ashleigh is a Physiotherapist working at Upwell Health Collective in Camberwell, Victoria