One of the questions people ask me pretty frequently is “how long did it take you to start feeling better?”
The bittersweet answer to this question is that if I had known then what I know now, my recovery would not have taken nearly so long. What made it so excruciating– and why I’m so determined to share my answers with you now– is that everything I learned, I had to learn myself, through so much trial and error. It took me five years to figure out all this information, but if I’d had it all at my fingertips, it wouldn’t have taken me five years to heal.
Because so many people seem to want more detail on how long each step of my recovery took, I thought I would go ahead and outline my recovery timeline for you. Hopefully this will give you some idea of what to expect in your own recovery (although you get to skip some of the time I spent doing the wrong things!).
Initial injury: August 2011
There are a few factors that I think led me to develop SI joint dysfunction, but I think the key moment that really pushed things over the edge occurred when I sat down way too hard on a wheelchair at a hospital, thinking I was going to land on a soft cushion when actually there was a metal bar directly beneath the seat.
I was actually at the hospital to get an x-ray of my knee (for a condition called chondromalacia patella). Yet I ended up coming home with a second injury that day–the force of that impact likely sprained my SI joint ligaments, although I didn’t know what had happened right away.
A few weeks later– September 2011– the first time my SI joints locked up
My chiropractor was able to “unlock” the joint, but it kept slipping back into the “locked” position just about all the time.
I was actually in land-based physical therapy at that time– I’d been going for my knees. My physical therapist (the first of six total I would see) said she didn’t really study SI joint dysfunction in school, but that she could give me exercises to make the muscles around the joint stronger.
Not knowing any better, I listened to her. She had, after all, genuinely helped me with my knees.
Once I’d compromised my SI joint ligaments, however, her exercise recommendations turned out to be a total disaster. My joints were not stable, so all of the exercises she gave me– intended for someone with stable ligaments– destabilized the joint even more. They increased my pain, and also made my joints move out of place and lock up.
So for the first few months, things only seemed to get worse.
My SI joints locked up all the time. Even when they weren’t locked up, I lived in fear, knowing one wrong move could make them lock, leaving me unable to walk normally until the next time I was able to go to the chiropractor.
December 2011– finally joined a gym with a pool…
My chiropractor is the one who really pushed me to get over my hesitations and join a pool. He didn’t care that I thought it was expensive, or that it was cold, or that I didn’t want to pay a gym membership. He pointed out that I wasn’t going to get better unless I got stronger, and I was clearly not getting stronger with my attempts at land-based exercise.
So, after a few months, I finally listened and joined a pool.
I noticed some immediate benefits:
It was the first real cardio workout I’d been able to get in months. And, as you know, exercise causes the body to release chemicals called endorphins, which have a pain reliving effect.
Additionally, aquatic exercise has a lot of added benefits on top of that. Although the pool was chilly, I felt like it acted like a giant ice pack, numbing some my pain.
Being able to move freely in the water, without pain, I was able to really get my body moving and my circulation going, which also helped me my body to flush toxins and chemical byproducts of inflammation out of my tissues faster.
So, the hope is that you, too, might experience reduced pain even the first time you work out in a pool.
For the first few months, I basically just did pool-running. I started with short fifteen-minute sessions, because I was pretty out of shape and wanted to be cautious with my joints.
I noticed a pretty big improvement in the first 1-2 months.
I had gained some strength, so it didn’t seem like my joints were quite as likely to move out of place and lock up at the drop of a feather. And when they did move out of place, they didn’t seem to move quite as far, so they didn’t lock quite as extremely. (I don’t have room to go into what makes the joint lock in detail in this post, but check out this post for more). Basically, once my muscles were stronger, they were able to do a better job of holding my hip bones in place so they did not get jammed quite as far back against the sacrum. The joint did still feel stuck, and it would still be hard to move my leg on the side that was locked, but it wasn’t quite as pronounced (and was definitely less painful).
February 2012– After two months– in general, I felt like walking was a little easier and I was able to stand up straighter.
Then I hit a plateau…
I kept doing the same pool routine, but stopped really noticing myself getting stronger. I still went and did my pool running for 30-40 minutes, but my joints were not becoming any more stable than they had become in those first two months.
Things pretty much stayed the same for the next year.
I added in some stretching, because otherwise my muscles got so tight it actually affected my ability to work out. But I still could not find a way to stretch all of the muscles I needed to, and it definitely held me back.
February 2013– I had to have emergency abdominal surgery
I wrote about this on Sunlight in Winter. I was unable to exercise at all for about a few months afterward. It was just too painful; even though it was laparoscopic surgery, my body needed time to heal.
June 2013– could start pool running again, but it was very gradual.
I had to work my way back, starting again with 10-15 minute sessions. But I built my way up more quickly the second time, because my joints were still more stable than they’d been immediately following my injury. I wasn’t quite starting from scratch.
September 2014– I finally saw my PT Paula.
She was the fifth PT I consulted. (I will write more in the future about how the previous PT’s I saw failed to understand the depth of my problem, or the limits of their own knowledge. That’s part of what I’m trying to do with my blog– I am not licensed, but I’m trying to give you an idea of what to look for in someone who is).
Paula helped me in two very major ways:
Paula pointed out that my long 30-40 pool running sessions were not actually building muscle STRENGTH. Instead, they were building endurance. She reminded me of what I had already known from my running days, but had been too overwhelmed to really think about in the pool: that to build STRENGTH, you need to be performing a very small number of repetitions (like 6-12) and then be exhausted at the end. (See my post Key Point #4: Muscular Strength vs. Endurance).
She gave me a few exercises to do in the pool (mostly things to strengthen the muscles in the back of the hips that I did 1-2 sets of about 12 repetitions of.
Once I started doing this, I finally was able to move beyond my plateau and start seeing benefits from exercise again. She had correctly identified the reason I was not improving– I was not actually building strength.
Paula also helped me figure out some new ways to stretch that did not negatively impact my SI joints. I realized that the previous PT’s I’d seen just hadn’t been thinking creatively enough– my SI joint dysfunction actually didn’t have to stop me from stretching. (A good PT knows there are multiple ways to strengthen or stretch any muscle!).
These two factors– the strength training, especially– really bumped my workouts up to the next level.
Over the course of the few years, I did gain a lot more strength, and my workouts involved a lot more different motion patterns than just pool running. I was more stable out of the pool; it was easier to reach things and carry things again.
In the past, when my SI joints locked up, I felt like my whole body was hunched over. Although the joints still locked slightly, I could feel how I had more muscles supporting me– both my back muscles and my transverse abdominis (a core muscle) in the front. I never felt hunched over anymore– my muscles held me up straight.
But my joints still moved out of place.
I felt like in the pool I was getting stronger and stronger; both in terms of strength and in terms of being in shape, cardio-wise.
But i just couldn’t seem to permanently stabilize my SI joints.
It would later turn out that it was actually all of my chiropractic adjustments that were stopping my joints from stabilizing.
Because otherwise I was doing everything right– strengthening, stretching my muscles (not the joint itself, or the ligaments, by the way!!! You only stretch muscles).
But, as it would turn out much later, the chiropractic adjustments, even though they were technically putting things in place, were just too much force for my ligaments– they were constantly being re-sprained when they wanted to heal.
June 2016– As you may have seen me write elsewhere, I discovered this by accident — I traveled to California for a wedding and couldn’t see my chiropractor. Though I’d been dreading the trip, I paradoxically came back feeling more stable.
So once I stopped receiving chiropractic adjustments completely, and only used the Muscle Energy Technique that Paula taught me, that’s when my SI joints finally, at long last, began to stabilize in a real sense. (You can see my post How I healed my SI joints without surgery, and my Key Points series).
September 2016– My SI joints had not moved out of place since my California trip (see this post I wrote).
So, that is the nutshell version. I’ve written about all of the points on here in more detail elsewhere; this was really to give you more of a chronological view.
I have a had a few smaller setbacks since then. I am aware that my SI joint ligaments will always be compromised– although sprained ligaments can heal to an extent, once they have been stretched out they never really tighten back up and heal completely.
I know that I will always sort of have an “Achilles heel” in the form of my SI joint ligaments– an anatomical pitfall that will leave me vulnerable, even when everything else is strong.
So I’m not trying to give you the illusion that my pelvis is back in its original condition, or that I’m out running marathons (I’m not).
Instead, the purpose of this blog is to share to you how I got to the point I am at now, where I feel like I’m able to generally live a normal life again, instead of just barely existing between chiropractor appointments, and am no longer considering surgery. Because for five years, I didn’t even think I’d get here.
Hope it was helpful!