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How To Successfully Return To Grappling After a Serious Back Injury

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How To Successfully Return To Grappling After a Serious Back Injury

Hi readers,

My name is Arizona, I’m a 26 year old BJJ black belt from Scotland and I train under the Gold Team affiliation. My coach is Arek Zienkiewicz; IBJJF British National Champion and first degree black belt under Mariusz & Maciej Linke, and Jorge Patino.

In early 2016 I suffered a very bad lower back disc herniation which calcified on the outside of my spine. By the time I had surgery I could hardly walk. I felt as though I had a burning hot iron permanently attached to my foot and I had these severe cramps that ran the length of my sciatic nerve, constantly. The pain was bad but the fact that it never went away, not even for a minute, drove me insane! It was a terrible time in my life and it wasn’t so unrealistic to assume I’d never be able to train again. BUT here I am almost 2 years later, feeling great, training 6 – 7 days a week and returning to competition in March at the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam, London.

I’m guest posting for BJJ EE today to share some insight and advice with you about this experience so that maybe you don’t have to go through it, or, if you already are, then to give you hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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LESSON #1– Serious injury can happen to anyone.

I was guilty of the naive attitude that somehow I was immune. I’d had knee surgery and that was difficult, but something big and life changing? Nah, not me. I guess that’s the same thing my friend and training partner “Spider” thought before he got cancer. So don’t go thinking that you don’t need to take care of your body, because you do.

LESSON #2 – Prevention.

It’s impossible to prevent something entirely but I know now (after seeing my MRI scans post-injury) that I could have been doing a lot more, much earlier, to prevent the injury that eventually occurred. So my first piece of advice is: actively try to prevent injuries and their worsening.

How?

Maintain a supple and flexible body, but reinforce it with strength. A huge component of my intensive rehabilitation program consisted of pilates, calisthenic and balance based exercises. These exercises are important because they’re about stability, specific muscle activation and correct posture. I cannot emphasise enough, especially in relation to your back, how important correct posture is. [More on this later]

When grappling, try to avoid being heavily stacked and be careful of those tornado style sweeps. Pre-injury I was all about those crazy guard moves, but the MRI scans showed my back had paid the price and two of my discs were in bad condition, one actually having ruptured. Being made of rubber is not protection against a fundamentally dangerous move for your back, no matter how much it doesn’t hurt at the time.

When you’ve been injured, the advice I have been given is to get the affected area moving as early as possible – even if it’s a bit painful (be sensible here though and allow a short rest period for the more serious stuff). Movement is medicine and the longer the injured area goes unused, the more the muscles deteriorate and other areas of the body have to compensate, therefore multiplying your problems. The trick with injury rehabilitation is a) to actually do it and b) do it at a low intensity but very frequently. For example, at one stage during my recovery I had to get up and walk a circuit around the house every 30 minutes to an hour.

As for those niggling long term injuries – actually do something about them. Time will improve things but it’ll always be a weakness and prone to further injury unless you dedicate time to actually rebuild, mobilise and strengthen the surrounding muscles. There is a wealth of legitimate and credible information on Youtube, or better yet, see a physiotherapist. Yes, we all think as jiu jistu masters that we are above the really basic exercises they offer you at first, but stick with it, actually do it, and I promise you will benefit in the long run.
Another thing, a few of the guys in my gym swear by foam rolling after a training session. Try it for yourself and see. The point is to treat your body with respect. Do not treat it as though it is disposable.

LESSON #3 – Adjust your expectations.

Everyone heals at a different rate irrespective of their physical condition or whichever other factor. Being a vey fit, young person, we all believed I would be back training within 6 months, perhaps even less. Every day that didn’t happen I just fell deeper and deeper into a well of bitterness, frustration, disappointment and jealousy. As if not training was bad enough, I tortured myself mentally too with all this expectation. Eventually, I had to just let go. That didn’t magically make me heal any faster, but it certainly made the journey more survivable. You can get back to focusing on the big goals later. Instead, focus on the immediate, smaller milestones- for the sake of your sanity. It’s important to recognise progress. Your body will heal right on time, when it is ready. You need to respect that and listen to it. Another thing- recovery is very rarely linear. You will have setbacks. It’s very hard to focus on being back to 1oo% when you can hardly even walk for example. Instead, aim only to walk. Your mental health is just as important as physical.

LESSON #4 – Posture.

I thought I knew about posture, until I went through back surgery rehabilitation. A healthy spine and minimal compression all comes down to a strong and engaged core. Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you have abs, your spine is in correct alignment. Correct posture which reduces back pain is ensuring your pelvis is always at the correct tilt, especially when doing things like bending over or picking things up, running, jumping, even walking. To engage your core, I want you to imagine doing a very slight ab curl from your lower abs up. Almost like a slight, inward and upwards hip curl. THIS should be your hip position when planking, when standing, when squatting, when bending over to empty the bin. There’s a really great, simple exercise I was shown in my physiotherapy program which trains your muscles to engage in the correct sequence and builds a strong core. I made a short video for demonstration here (just go as far as is comfortable for you):

Let’s call this exercise a “spinal roll down”. The point is to roll down slowly, one vertebra at a time, and really focus on curling those abs in as much as possible. Then reverse when you roll back up, one vertebra at a time.

LESSON #5: Alternative therapies, different opinions…

When you get injured, you’ll probably go and see a lot of different people who have a lot of different opinions. This can be very confusing and stressful, and we don’t need any extra stress when dealing with a serious injury. My advice is to find an opinion that makes sense to you, that feels right, is evidence based, and stick with it. Out of all the doctors, chiropractors, masseurs, acupuncturists and cryogenisists I visited, the best advice came from my physiotherapist. My surgeon would be a close second but number one would definitely be my physiotherapist. If massage etc helps you, then do it, but be aware that sometimes that can make a problem worse. Listen to your body, you know you better than anyone else on the outside so actually pay attention to what your body is telling you.

LESSON #6: Don’t give up for too long

You will probably give up some days (and you’re allowed to do so), but get back on it. I really thought I would never be back: even something as simple as laughing was agonising pain, so how on earth would I manage to one day fight again?! But now, after a very difficult and long recovery process I CAN fight again. Even when it seems impossible, there is always a chance. Just achieve those small goals one at a time; after all, the big goals are just made up of loads of tiny, little ones.

So, there you have it. Here is headline advice, I hope it helps you in an undoubtedly difficult time. If you have any questions you can leave a comment and I’ll try and get back to you, or you can message me via Facebook (Arizona Mercedes Brodie) or email arizonamercedes[email protected]

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