My 22 year struggle with lower back pain and how I turned it around

Where it all began

In 1994, I was a junior in high school and was driving an old 1971 Ford pickup truck in St. Paul, MN when a car ran a stop sign and t-boned me from the side just behind the driver side door. The force of the collision caused my truck to spin around several times until it left the road and came to a stop in a baseball field. Those old trucks didn’t have the 3-point seat belts that we have today. Instead, they had lap belts that only went across your waist. I was wearing my seat belt, but the force of the collision from the side caused my waist to move with the impact while my upper body stayed in forward motion, causing a catastrophic sheer force on the discs in my lower back.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this is where it all began.

My left side was a little banged up and I was pretty sore for a few days, but I had no idea that I had a back injury at the time. Two weeks later, I was playing basketball with some friends when my back suddenly gave out.  I wasn’t doing anything crazy at the time. I was running straight down the court and at about the half-court mark it felt like a bolt of lightning went through my spine and I went down hard. I slowly hobbled back to the car and spent the next week or so in bed. This was my first experience “throwing out my back.”

I healed fairly quickly at first, and shrugged it off thinking that it was an isolated incident. Boy was I wrong!

My extended hospital stay

Over the next several years, I continued to throw out my back about once per year doing various things from bending over to putting on my socks too fast to throwing a ball. After graduating college, I started a new career as a software developer and was spending more and more time sitting at a desk all day. As the years went on, the frequency of back pain related incidents increased, and the severity of each incident also increased.

In 2006, I just finished showering and had flipped the towel over my head to dry off my back and suddenly, it felt as if my spinal chord itself had been severed. I knew I was going down. It’s hard to explain, but the pain was so intense I could actually see it. I hit the floor and the pain grew and intensified by the second. This time, I knew it was different.  I couldn’t hobble or crawl over to my bed like I was able to in the past. I couldn’t move. All I could do was lay there in excruciating pain. Eventually, my girlfriend (now wife Kasi) called 911 and they carried me out of the house on a stretcher. The next 5 days was spent in the hospital.

At the time, part of me was glad that I was in the hospital because I felt like I was finally going to get some answers and a fix to all of my lower back pain problems. Surely, a doctor could run some tests, prescribe me something, and put me on a path to a happy and pain free life, right? The experience was a little disappointing to say the least. They ran an MRI, told me I had multiple protruding or herniated discs, and that there was nothing they could do. Their main concern was to get me out of the hospital as fast as possible. They kept telling me that as soon as I could sit up I was going to be discharged, so they gave me lots of pain killers and anti-inflammatories until I was able to be wheeled out the doors 5 days later.

Me being discharged from the hospital in 2006
Me being discharged from the hospital in 2006

The quest for a solution

The recovery was slow going. I needed a walker to get around the house for the next four weeks. During this time, I started seeing a physical therapist and went through a series of exercises to help with the recovery. At the time, I was convinced that my back problems were caused by spending so much time on a mediocre office chair. So as soon as I was able, I headed to an office furniture store with the goal of purchasing the best office chair for back pain that was available. I ended up with the Herman Miller Mirra Task Chair for my home office. At work, I was using the classic Herman Miller Aeron Chair.

My Home Office with Mirra Task Chair in 2006
My Home Office with Mirra Task Chair (on right) in 2006

Both of these chairs were great, but I still wasn’t seeing much improvement with my back pain. I started seeing a Chiropractor and went through a program that included weekly adjustments with some heat, electrical stimulation, and a traction table mixed in here and there. I did this for about a year and did see some improvement, but I couldn’t afford the weekly visits and I continued to experience bad episodes with my back.

I decided to try a different route and went to a HealthSource Chiropractic & Wellness center that focused more on an exercise program that utilized big rubber bands to help strengthen my core muscles. Again, I saw some improvement, but after the program ended I quickly ended up right back where I started, even though I was continuing the exercises at home.

After some stints with different Chiropractors, I heard some great things about the Physicians Neck & Back Clinic and decided to give them a try. They had a different exercise program that taught me new stretches and leveraged high-tech exercise machines that focused on my core muscles. Every day I walked in, I’d start with stretches, move to walking on a treadmill for 10 minutes, then work with a personal trainer on a bunch of core exercises. They had a high-tech back extension machine that was great at working and strengthening my lower back muscles. I have no idea where you buy one, but it was amazing and I wish I had one!  When I graduated the program, they made a point to teach me how to replicate a lot of the exercises at home so that I could maintain the progress that I had made. They taught me how to use a roman chair properly, then they told me they never wanted to see me in their office again. It felt good knowing that they wanted to give me the tools and knowledge to maintain my progress so that I wouldn’t need to come back.

My Roman Chair
My Roman Chair

At this point, I made the most progress at the Physicians Neck & Back Clinic, but my back pain never went away completely. I still dealt with an achey back on a daily basis, and over time, it continued to get worse even though I continued using the roman chair.  Over the years, I acquired a yoga mat, a roman chair, treadmill, Bowflex Revolution, and a Teeter Hangups Inversion Table. My basement was full of these machines and I was still plagued with chronic lower back pain. I thought it might be a good time to start looking into the possibility of back surgery, so I went in for an updated MRI and made an appointment to see one of the best orthopedic spine surgeons in Minnesota: Dr. Bruce Bartie.

My MRI
My MRI

I was trying my best to avoid going the back surgery route, but thought it couldn’t hurt to talk to a back surgeon to get more info on the different procedures. I heard lots of great stories about minimally invasive back surgery and was open to the idea of using it as an option. I was expecting to walk into Dr. Bartie’s office and have him lay out a surgical plan and talk about risks and such. To my surprise, it didn’t go anything like that.  He walked in, took one quick look at my MRI and told me that I have two “flat tires” for discs that need complete disc replacements. The catch was that I needed two complete disc replacements in the same region but he was only able to do one because of some FDA regulations. At the time, multiple replacements in the same region weren’t approved by the FDA so his hands were tied. He said that he could do a spinal fusion, but he thought I was too young and he felt that I wanted to maintain my flexibility. He mentioned that my condition didn’t just happen from sitting in an office chair and suggested that there was a catastrophic incident that occurred before my symptoms started. This is when I first realized that the car accident from high school was likely the root cause that started it all. He told me he was sorry and sent me on my way.

Feeling defeated, I went on my way and continued with the exercises and roman chair hoping that things would improve, but the struggle with daily back pain continued. I moved into a new office in downtown Stillwater, MN and decided to design the office around my back. I had a sit down desk with a Herman Miller Sayl Chair on one side of the room, a bar height table in the middle of the room so I could stand and work, and a couch on the other side of the room so that I could lay down to rest my back. I would rotate to the different stations throughout the day and while it did seem to help, it had it’s issues. The main issue was that it was difficult to use a laptop while laying on the couch and I couldn’t use my 27 inch monitor while laying down. This continued for a couple of years until I moved back to my home office.

Stillwater Office with Standing Table and Sayl Chairs before the desk was installed
Stillwater Office with Standing Table and Sayl Chairs before the desk was installed

The bathroom strikes again

In early January of 2015, I had the worst incident since my 5 day stay at the hospital in 2006. I was brushing my teeth and turned my body in just the wrong way where I could instantly feel a disc herniating or pushing into my spinal cord.  Just like the incident in 2006, I could literally see the pain as if a windshield wiper was wiping the pain up my eyes. It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve ever experienced it, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I was on the floor and couldn’t move. My wife was downstairs getting the kids ready for school as I pounded on the floor and yelled to try and get her attention. She heard the pounding, but she thought I was working on something in the bathroom so she didn’t think anything was wrong.  20 to 30 minutes later, she found me on the bathroom floor.

The turning point

I spent the majority of the next 4 weeks in bed and was back to using my trusty old walker to get around the house. Still in my 30s, I knew that if I didn’t find a solution to my back problems soon it would eventually do me in. I made an appointment to see Dr. Jamy Antoine at the The Disc Institute who specializes in treating bulging discs, herniated discs, degenerative disc disease, and other disc related symptoms without the use of drugs, injections, or surgery. I strolled through the door slowly and gently with my walker and most recent MRI hoping to get some answers. This meeting would change everything for me.

Dr. Jamy Antoine took the time to sit down with me and explain my condition more thoroughly and better than any other doctor has in the past. He explained how the discs are like little pumping mechanisms that are made up of water. When a disc stops pumping, it slowly degenerates and dies over time, just like how a plant wilts and turns brown when it stops receiving water.  The key to his program is that he’s able put focus on specific discs that essentially kickstart the pumping action to make the disc start pumping again.  Once this pumping action is jumpstarted, the disc can start pumping again and begin to repair itself naturally.

Dr. Jamy Antoine showed me before and after MRIs from some of his other patients that went through the program and to say I was impressed would be understatement. He felt that I was a good candidate for the program and I really felt confident that his program would help me. There was only one problem; I couldn’t afford it and I couldn’t make the commitment to driving 45 minutes across town several times per week to do the program. Knowing the crude basics of the theory behind the program, I decided to see if I could come up my own program at home that would give me similar benefits.

I was determined to find a solution.

Soon after, I built a treadmill desk and experimented with it for several weeks. When I started, I could only stand for approximately 10 minutes before the pain was so great I’d have to sit. I wanted to get my hips in a slow oscillating motion throughout the day in an attempt to get my discs pumping again and get more blood flow in that area.  I started incorporating my inversion table into the mix.

My Treadmill Desk
My Treadmill Desk

I would walk at a slow pace for an hour or so, then I would hang upside down for a few minutes on the inversion table, then go back to walking and repeat. The idea was that the inversion table would allow gravity to pull my my discs apart slightly, creating a vacuum within each disc that would allow blood and nutrients to get pulled in, then when I flipped back over, it would compress and push things back out; essentially replicating a pumping motion.

My Teeter Hangups Inversion Table
My Teeter Hangups Inversion Table

I started seeing very good progress in a short period of time and I knew I was onto something. I experimented with walking and hanging upside down for various lengths of time and I continued to see progress. I even started going down the road of adding an oscillating motor to my inversion table so that it could automatically oscillate the table back and forth, thus decompressing and then compressing my discs over and over and replicating that pumping motion. I quickly abandoned that idea after realizing that my knees and ankles hurt from being locked into the inversion table, and I wasn’t able to use my laptop and work while being fixed to the table. Ideally, I wanted something that would allow me to continue working without any downtime while also introducing some decompression or inversion to help get those discs pumping and regenerating. I wanted something that could be incorporated into my work routine without having to take time out of my day to physically leave to do therapy. This is when I started dreaming about inversion chairs and tinkering with prototypes.

Prototyping the inversion chair

My wife Kasi testing an inversion chair prototype
My wife Kasi testing an inversion chair prototype

 

I went through several different versions and experimented with different angles, seat cushion foam thickness, foam density…etc until I was happy. I landed on a prototype that incorporates foam rollers to reduce friction and allow gravity to assist in stretching my lower back. I finished the first main prototype in July of 2015 and have been using it ever since in my daily work routine (it looks a lot nicer than the one pictured above). Since then, I’ve experimented more with the frequency at which I sit, stand, and decompress at different angles. I’ve learned a lot about what works for me, what doesn’t, and what I like and dislike about the prototype over the last 21 months.  I’m probably what most people would call a workaholic, and it’s not uncommon for me to work 12+ hour days. I’ve gone from not being able to stand for 10 minutes to being able to easily stand for 8 hours or more every day (not all at once)! My life has improved dramatically since I started using the Lift Bridge Workstation. I still have a little stiffness and discomfort from time to time, but it’s nowhere near the pain that I experienced before, and I haven’t had a major episode of throwing out my back since I started using the Lift Bridge Workstation. After I was able to prove to myself that my workstation truly helped improve my condition, I knew I couldn’t keep it all for myself. I had to share it with the world and do what I can to help others that feel helpless and share in the same daily struggles that I’ve had over the last 22 years.

I know this was long, but I felt that it was necessary to share my story and history in order to fully understand the Lift Bridge Workstation and the concepts behind it. I’ll be posting more soon as I get the plans ready to distribute to other makers and woodworkers so stay tuned, take care, and be well!

Tommy

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2 thoughts on “My 22 year struggle with lower back pain and how I turned it around

  1. Michael A Elliott says:

    I suspect you have seen multiple comments like this, but I have a very similar problem. I throw my back out constantly. Not to the extent that I have ever been hospitalized from it, my routine is usually; it goes out, I make an appointment for the doctor (which once you tell them it is because you threw your back out it will take a week), insurance won’t cover an MRI without first doing x-ray , exercise routine, pain medicine, second visit if it’s not better after a week, possibly another x-ray (which by the way usually won’t detect anything but bone issues), then possibly insurance will cover an MRI. I’ve never had one. Like you said, it goes out with the slightest movement. Sometimes it seems most likely to happen after strenuous activity but only once it has relaxed some; like after a shower bending over for a towel or drying off. I am intrigued with what you have come up with. I too am a woodworker and came across your workbench video first before seeing the Lift Bridge video. I am tempted by your Team of Makers concept, but not sure just yet. I would definitely like to purchase your plans when they are available and see what I can adapt to my work/life style. Peace.

    • tommytompkins says:

      Sorry to hear about your back Michael. I know exactly what you’re going through! In my experience over the years, I’ve found that most doctors just wanted to pump me full of pain medication and weren’t able to address the root cause of the problem with my discs. When other doctors were telling me that steroid injections and surgery were my only options, Dr. Jamy Antoine at the Disc Institute of MN gave me hope and explained how herniated and bulging discs are able to repair themselves with a little help and the right treatment. For me, I’ve found that sitting less and changing my work positions throughout the day combined with daily stretching, staying hydrated, and a little exercise has done wonders for my back.

      In regards to the maker team, there’s absolutely no commitment so even if you think you might be interested, be sure to fill out the maker form so we can send you more details when we’re ready. In a nutshell, when a potential customer in your area requests a quote for furniture, we would notify you and you would have the opportunity to respond with a quote or decline. Easy peasy 🙂 Alternatively, if you just wanted to build one for yourself, you’ll be able to do that as well once the plans are available.

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