Your Spine Column’s Health
by Alexander Sharif,
Wild Sheep Foundation Life Member, February 2017.
Does this quote sound familiar to you:
“What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger”
This has been both a mantra and a theme all my life and I am sure many of you have also lived by it. However, if I was to turn the clock back, I would not abide by it. The circumstances that I have had to deal with in the past 5 months inspired the writing of this article, making sure my fellow mountain hunters who subscribe to Wild Sheep and are either starting their Mountain hunting career or have been in it for some time don’t go down the rocky road I travelled through and have the opportunity to avoid the pain and challenges I have endured.
It all started in 1984 when I was working two non-technical jobs to put myself through Grad school in California. Unloading a large grocery truck all by myself despite the title “Cashier”(being too shy to say no) caused my disc between the L4 & L5 vertebrae to herniate severely and put me out of commission and in bed for 3 weeks. I declined the surgery, made some lifestyle changes (quit running and soccer) and tried noninvasive alternatives such as core strength training and a few isometric exercises to strengthen my back and abdominal muscles.
For the next 32 years, I managed my disc issue by slowing down my work outs every time I had a back spasm episode and things would go back to relative calm after a week or two. In the last 15 years however, I started carrying very heavy loads up and down mountains, sometimes not even during the hunting season. I considered this training and preparation for the Fall Sheep, Elk and Deer season. This past September, the spasms returned and did not go away for over 7 weeks. Big game season was underwayandeven though my spasms were still there, week after week,I hunted or guided Elk, Mule deer and packed 90+lbs.packs to help friends get their meat out of the mountains and the foothills.
By mid-November, my sciatic nerve on the right side started giving me indications of pain which I once againchose to ignore and carried on with my hunts and the large pack outs. After all, what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger, right?
In early December, on a ski touring trip to Kananaskis which involved climbing with my skis, the camels back finally broke and I realized I was no longer able to hold my weight on my right leg when I started the descent. With agonizing pain, I walked the 10 km back to the truck with skis on my shoulders. The pain was excruciating for the weeks that followed. Sneezing, standing and even coughing was painful, and ordinary chores such as getting in and out of my truck had turned into nightmares.Sleep was also affected with lightning like pain shooting down in my calf and hamstrings every time I rolled and turned. With divine intervention, I finally was able to get an MRI through the Canadian medical system around Christmas time. The images revealed large disc herniation at L4-L5, L3-L4 and L5-S1 with narrowing of the nerve canal. This injury and the subsequent MRI diagnosis shook my core and I quickly realized that for the time being, I am no longer able to take to the mountains for any kind of activity. For someone who is always either hiking, climbing, hunting, fishing, skiing or biking, this was the ultimate psychological nightmare. More on that later as we now turn our attention to the subject of our spinal column’s health.
From an engineering standpoint, your muscles may help carry load but ultimately, the total load you are carrying on your back has to come down through your vertebra. That is the ONLYload path. Your vertebra has cushions of shock absorbers called discs which are made from layers of collagen fibers containing fluid. They are somewhat elastic which means that they will retract to their original position when loaded by the vertebra bones, absorbing the shocks that travel down the spinal column and preventing joint arthritis. The muscles surrounding your back and your abdomen will only help redistribute the load evenly, bringing it down through your spine to your hips and eventually to your femur and your feet. The point here is that even if you are in top physical shape and have good core strength, your vertebra and your intervertebral discs will always bear the load and if overloaded over time, they can experience bulging, herniation and in some instances a complete tear. With age and time, the discs lose their moisture content and hence their elasticity. The end result all too often is that the herniated discs will put pressure on the spinal nerve canal that is coming from your brain through your spinal cord. This manifests itself in excruciating pain that shoots like lightning through the Gluteus, the Semimembranosus, and theGastrocnemius muscle and in some instances propagating all the way in to the feet and toes, resulting in numbness, loss of mobility and even interference/blocking of the urinary and the bowel canals. It’s the kind of pain that paralyses even the toughest of athletes.
We all love to hunt sheep and inevitably have to carry our gear into the mountains and out of it with the possible added weight of our trophies. Since my recent back flare up, I have donea lot of reading, spoken to a lot of people who have had back injuries, listening to their journeys and here is what I would do differently if I were once again young and starting out or when I hopefully recover.
- Know yourpersonal limit when it comes to carrying load on your back and put that ego aside. The general rule of thumb for a fit person in tip-top Mountain shapeis not to carry more than a maximum of 25 to 30% of their body weight.
- Buy a quality pack and – not necessarily the lightest – that has good hardware, a Skookum frame, a load shelf to keep your meat close to your body and a proven system that can redistribute the load properly to your hips. Take the time to adjust it properly and learn how to make it fit to your body’s contour. We are all built differently, some with long torsos and the perfect combination may be a small frame with a medium bag or vice versa. I have tried many packs over the years and Mystery Ranch is by and large my favorite. No wonder the US Military uses it in combat!
- Make core strength training and Yoga a MAJOR part of your training. Cardio and weights are good but not enough. Yoga in particular when done properly, will not only increase your core strength and endurance, but will reach out and stretch muscles that you normally don’t use. All sports benefit from Yoga but the reverse is not true. A one hour Somatic session will go a long way in teaching you proper techniques for releasing muscle tightness and proper body posture.
- Treat your back with a LOT of respect and stop being a hero, volunteering to carry more of your share of meat and gear for your buddies, as I did and ultimately paid the price. A better option is to makemore of the lighter trips than one heavy pack out.
- Never ever lift a heavy load and twist your body with it at the same time. Those combined movements (extension and rotation) plus the heavy load are the number one cause for disc injuries.
- Disc injuries are more common in younger to middle age adults because the discs retain more moisture which makes them easier to damage or rupture, similar to a balloon.
- Remember thatmany of the back injuries are often gradual with no apparent symptomsand have cumulativeeffects over time. Once damaged, recovery is often long and painful.
- If you do ever get injured or start feeling any of the symptoms mentioned above, make sure you get it properly diagnosed by a qualified orthopedic/neurosurgeon or a veteran therapist/Chiropractor before you start even thinking about treatment options. Physical therapy, IMS, Chirocare and other non-invasive treatment options should ONLY be exercised after a proper diagnosis is made and confirmed through MRI and X-ray, withthe results read and interpreted by a qualified professional. If not diagnosed properly, you can easily make the situation worse by jumping too early into any of the treatments outlined above.
- If horses are available to you to pack your gear and quarry, use them. No one is going to give you a gold medal because you packed your Ram and your gear out on your back. I also have and do use my mountain bike to at least get me close to sheep country and help with the flat road sections.
- The mind does wonders. Meditate, pray and maintain a positive outlook on life and your healing will benefit because of it.
On a humorous note, I want to conclude this post by a short Blog that my cousin, a respected Chiropractor in the Boise area wrote after being inspired by my condition;
“There once lived a very wealthy man who one day decided to climb a tall tree. As he worked his way to the very top of the tree, he looked down at the ground and froze in fear. Fearing for his life, he began praying and in his mind made a deal with his higher power that if he gets back on the ground safely he will donate all his wealth to charity and just causes.
Feeling a bit confidant after making the deal, he began to very slowly crawl down the tree. As he got to the halfway point down, the fear subsided a bit so he decided to revise his deal and donate only half of his wealth to charity and just causes. Eventually he set foot on the ground and forgetting the paralyzing fear he had just experienced, changed his mind all together and decided to keep all his money, never mind charity or just causes!
The moral of the story above is to never stop taking care of your body, with or without pain. Best time to get adjusted or train is when you don’t hurt. When you climb down from the tree of pain and set foot on solid ground is when you need to think about taking care of your health”.
With lingering physical and emotional pain, I write these short lines of advice for those of you young studs/guides/sheep nuts out there whom I saw and chatted with in Reno this year.I look outside my hotel window in Banff and stare at the spectacular Canadian Rockies that are blinking at me and calling me for another outing invite. At this point in time, Ihave no choice but to take a rain cheque and put my fate in the Canadian health system and my newly discovered mind-body awareness. Hopefully a reasonable and managed recovery is waiting for me with a return to start my core training again, helping me get back to where we all belong; our beloved mountains and the opportunities they offer for the sportsmen and in particular the wild sheep aficionado. Be well and stay focused!
WSF Life Member