I recently went through a personal struggle with my body that I feel has become my story. As a chiropractor, long time fitness instructor, and former athlete I am no novice when it comes to health and wellness, nor pain and injury. I have been fit my entire life and have felt it is my calling to educate and inspire others to love, celebrate, and treat their bodies well. As a former gymnast I definitely had my fair share of injuries and had developed the mindset to push through pain. Gymnastics is really hard and does not always feel good, but the skills are so much fun and make all the hard work worth it. Blood, sweat, and tears, baby! From gymnastics to power lifting to distance running to all sorts of group fitness to yoga and then finding CrossFit, I have tried it all! CrossFit sang to my heart when I started in May 2015.

In May 2017 I was at the top of my game. I had my strict ring muscle up and working towards kipping. I was top of the whiteboard just about every workout. I was a beast with the barbell, quick on my feet, and pretty darn good at bodyweight movements. I was looking forward to starting to compete individually in local CrossFit competitions. However, I experienced another episode of shoulder pain. I was having recurrent episodes of shoulder pain in my rotator cuffs that would bounce from right to left, back and forth, maybe 3-4 times a year. It was never too painful or caused weakness, it just seemed to be my reminder to take a break from exercise and rest for about a week. I am faithful to my self care: massage every 2 weeks, chiropractic every week, clean diet, loads of supplements, hot salt baths 1-2 times a week, yoga everyday, and meditation. I was the epitome of what I preached. However, this episode threw me through a loop. It was the worst episode of pain I had ever had. Over the course of 6 weeks it got better, it came back, it switched from left to right and back to the left, it was shoulder pain then it was neck pain. I could not look down to save my life. I ramped up my anti-inflammatory supplements, I took out inflammatory foods from my diet, I went to a physical therapist for dry needling, I increased my massage and chiropractic care, I took time off from workouts, I modified movements based on what was programmed and how I felt. I never once had numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness in my arms or hands. Then it changed. When I would run, jump, or look down the pain would shoot into my shoulders. I found myself in tears needing prednisone to calm the pain. Thankfully because of my knowledge of the spine I began to realize that I likely had a “hot disc.” Swollen, budged, possibly herniated…I needed a MRI.

I stopped all exercise and had the MRI. To my surprise I had a large C5-6 centrally herniated disc with severe spinal cord compression causing deformity. My world came to a halt. Basically if you think of a disc in the spine as a jelly doughnut, the jelly had busted through the dough and was severely compressing my spinal cord. I a strong jolt away from being a quadriplegic or losing control of my organs. I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined that would be the findings. This is not a usual and customary injury. I could not stop wiggling my toes or fingers. How was this possible? How could this be inside of me? Why do I not have more symptoms? Thank goodness I stopped exercise when the pain changed and I got the MRI. I could have rested until the pain was better, exercised, caused more cord compression, and collapsed sending myself into emergency surgery.

I quickly called a colleague in Cary who does spinal decompression in his offie. My gut knew this would be a surgical fix, but I really wanted his opinion. He was flabbergasted. He agreed that this was a surgical fix, but was willing to try spinal decompression to see if it helped me feel better in the meantime. He also put the fear of God in me that I was to stop everything. No yoga, no lifting, no looking down, and no high velocity adjustments to my patients. I could coach CrossFit and teach yoga, but I could not demonstrate the movements. He put me in a soft cervical collar to limit my movement and support my neck to hold my head. He told me I “walk to survive, not exercise.” We both feared me driving; if someone were to reared me I’d be in surgery. I have never been so scared in my life.

I called the neurosurgeon I trusted whom I had known for years. Of course, he was on vacation and would be back in the office the following week, while I was on vacation. I felt like doing the spinal decompression, wearing my collar, and taking things very easy kept me in a good place, and I was surely looking forward to a week at the beach to relax…and to process the reality I was about to face.

After my week at the beach I saw the neurosurgeon, Dr. Garner. I sat in his waiting room for almost an hour. Once I was in the exam room I realized why I sat out there so long. Dr. Garner was viewing my MRI disc I brought with me and showed it to all the other neurosurgeons in the office. He told me, “Based on the report you sent us I was waiting to see this MRI; I was waiting to see how you would walk in this office. Your MRI has impressed all 5 neurosurgeons in this office, and that’s not a good thing.” He told me about how he operates on people, not pictures, but in this case he had to operate based on a picture. He could not believe that I was not showing more symptoms of radiculopathy or myelopathy. I honestly think that my physical conditioning allowed my body to handle this terrible injury and maintain such composure. He could not believe I was not in pain either. And I was not in pain. Once I got the MRI and seized all physical activity and continued with the anti inflammatory diet and supplement regimen I was off any medications and pain free.

Dr. Garner elected to bring in a complex spine deformity specialist, Dr. Lars Gardner, to perform the operation with him. Turns out Dr. Lars is a CrossFitter! I was so relieved. You see, this entire ordeal really shook my ego. Not only did I have to deal with the fact that I’m a chiropractor and I “allowed” this to happen to my spine, but the stigma that “CrossFit is dangerous” had me a little gun-shy to tell these surgeons what I do for exercise that could have impacted this issue. First off, I didn’t allow this to happen. I did everything in my power to prevent something like this from happening (good form with lifting, regular body work, good nutrition, taking rest days, etc), but sometimes s#!t happens. I have had years of neck pain stemming back to college that kept me from participating in cervical adjusting classes in chiropractic school because the constant maneuvering of my neck would lead to migraine headaches. Hindsight, I should have had X-rays taken years ago, I should have done corrective exercises to balance the postural stress of my job, and I should have kept better records of how frequent and intense I experienced neck and shoulder issues. Secondly, here I sit in a neurosurgeon’s office with a surgeon who does CrossFit. Now I couldn’t pinpoint the specific event or catalyst to this problem. It seemed to be a series of events that led to the disc herniating, but for all I knew it could have been an overhead lift, a chiropractic adjustment, a head or handstand in yoga, or too much head banging at a Pearl Jam concert. He’s not judging my activity, he gets my competitive spirit, and he understands the movements in CrossFit to give me an idea of recovery and moving forward from this injury.

On August 10, 2017 I underwent a C5-6 anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF surgery). They removed my herniated disc, made sure my spinal cord rebounded, placed a titanium spacer between the C5 and C6 vertebrae, and then screwed a titanium plate to the front of my spine.

It feels incredible to be fixed! I no longer feel like a bobblehead. I no longer feel every bump in the road when I drive. I no longer feel like a fragile, ceramic doll, one sneeze away from paralysis. My shoulder pains are gone. I no longer wake up at night with my hands numb. I can actually hold my posture tall again, where at one point it was painful and tiring to hold my shoulders back, chest up, and head over my shoulders.

I am currently 4 weeks post op and doing amazing. I was told by my surgeon that most people who have this surgery are to do nothing for 3 months post op. I followed up with the surgeons at 3 weeks and they lifted all restrictions allowing me to go back to work, get back to yoga (including downward facing dog pose, just no handstands), walking/biking/rowing, light weight training (nothing overhead), and bodyweight exercises. They said I’m in awesome physical shape and were not surprised at my recovery seeing how well I was prior to surgery. I also have no degenerative changes to my spine or other complicating factors inhibiting healing. They advised I take it slow and ease back into things, especially overhead lifting. I met with a physical therapist to work on strengthening my rotator cuff muscles and my neck. In about 2 months I plan to get back into some light overhead work and strict body movements, like pull ups. I am working to increase my core strength and posture, too.

This entire experience has taught me so much. I can honestly say I do not regret anything. It’s experiences like this that gives me a greater perspective as a physician on what it feels like to be a patient, especially when dealing with neck pain. It’s reminded me to explain things better to my patients, pay attention to subtle things that can become bigger issues, and reinforce good posture at home, work, and the gym. It has reminded me that I am human and not immune to the conditions I see everyday in practice.

This experience has definitely made me a better CrossFit coach. Not only coaching and instructing good form, but to remind folks that pain is your body telling you to stop and take care of something. There are some pains worth pushing through, such as soreness from a tough workout or dealing with a rip from bar work, but there are other pains that should not be ignored. The ego is a wacky part of the human psyche. It’s a beneficial piece to our thought process when we practice awareness and detachment. It’s good to have goals, it’s ok to criticize yourself to be better, it’s awesome when we get a PR, but at what cost? The need to get a pull up, PR a lift, put “Rx” on the whiteboard, or crush a metcon should not come before taking care of yourself and achieving these things safely; that is all on the individual. When a certain movement always causes pain, there are 2 things happening and they go together: 1) there’s a weakness, 2) it’s being performed incorrectly.

I’ll blog more on those in the future, but for now I hope my story has shed some light on several things. It’s not my job to teach someone a lesson. I can share my experience and maybe it makes a difference, but ultimately we all have to learn our lessons on our own. But keep in mind, it’s not always how you look or perform, it’s how you feel. Pain is your body’s alarm system that something is not right and needs attention. You can have all the knowledge, all the answers, do your best, and s#!t still happens. It does not matter what happens to you, it’s how you respond to it. Every experience has the ability to move you forward towards growth or hold you back in your comfort zone, how do you want to handle it?


-Coach Heather