My Life After An Injury And What Lights Me Up By Alexis Collins, MPH - @Alexis_fitco

Can you give us a brief summary of your condition/injury including: what happened, when it happened, what you were doing before and how it has affected you ever since?

I injured my low back in 2016 deadlifting in the gym. I vividly remember picking up the weight on my last set of ten reps and feeling a pop or a tear sensation in my low back. I dropped the weight, walked around a bit and I just knew I messed something up BAD. I stayed away from the gym for two weeks and then took it easy when I returned. I couldn’t deadlift or squat for a while which was okay because I could still do other things. I’ve been working out and weight lifting for most of life so it was difficult for me to sustain an injury and go through these changes.

I eventually competed in bodybuilding in the bikini division in 2017. I competed in four shows, one of them being a national show in Miami, and was in the top 5 at each show. I absolutely loved the sport and felt completive but the posing and grueling workouts really took a toll on my body. Ultimately, I only made my injury worse once my body recovered from the contest prep diet I endured for that entire year.

I didn’t have my first painful “flare-up” until August 2020 which sent me to the ER where I was admitted for three days because they couldn’t control my pain. I remember waking up that morning and couldn’t move or bare my own weight when standing. I had to hold onto my boyfriend for every step. He even had to lower me onto the toilet which was extremely difficult for me to even execute on my own. I couldn’t dress myself, stand, sit or move without crying. I felt like I was moments away from paralysis and nothing was helping the pain, not even the cocktail the ER gave me (Toradol, muscle relaxers, Vicodin and morphine).

I met with a surgeon and listed off everything I’ve tried in the past for my back pain: chiropractic care for 1 year, neuro-corrective chiropractic care for 6 months, acupuncture, two rounds of physical therapy, facet joint injections, and massage therapy, none of which worked long-term. Based on my MRI at the time, I had a three-level disc injury but nothing severe enough to warrant surgery. So, he suggested epidural steroid injections and I had my first one in the hospital and my second one two weeks later. The epidurals helped immensely and I actually felt like I was in the clear. I went back to the gym lifting regularly but drastically decreased my weight (I had to leave my ego at the door) and the time I trained.

Five months later (Jan 2021) I had a second flare-up that sent me to the ER, only this time they didn’t admit me, just sent me how with a lot of prescriptions. I scheduled another epidural and an MRI as requested by my neurosurgeon. I received another 2 injections and this MRI showed my injury had gotten worse. I’ve now been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease, a bulging disc at L3-L4, an annular tear at L4-L5, and a full herniation at L5-S1. I am also a candidate for a two-level spinal fusion surgery with potential for a third fusion. I don’t take daily medications to manage my pain, I only take something if I really need it.

This news was devastating. I injured myself in 2016 at the age of 27 and I’m a candidate for a spinal fusion surgery at the age of 32. A surgery that usually occurs for people in their late 50s and older. I was also told that once you have spinal surgery, you will most likely have recurring surgeries throughout your life so I could expect to have surgery every 10 years. My bodybuilding career is over, my workouts will never be the same, I’ll need help with basic things for the rest of my life, and I have to say no to trying new things like ice skating due to the fear of falling and hurting myself more.

I can’t keep chasing my pain with epidurals either. My surgeon told me epidurals should only be administered 3 times a year and I’ve had 4 in 6 months. At this point, I’m putting off surgery as long as I can and seeing a mobility specialist in the meantime to aid in my recovery and healing. To be honest, I’m really nervous about being pregnant with a bad back because back pain is inevitable with pregnancy so I can’t even imagine what mine experience will be like if I don’t get surgery. I want to have kids in the next few years since I just got engaged in June 2021 which means surgery isn’t too far off for me. It’s scares me being so young and needing such an intense surgery. But it does make me wonder what my life and capabilities will be like post-surgery. Will I be able to go back to some things I could do before my injury like dirt-biking and weight lifting? Or, will I have no improvements but just be in less pain on a day-to-day basis? Time will tell.

• What is the work/hobby that lights you up now and why?

I’ve found so much pleasure in walking now, whether it’s an easy hike through the woods, just around my neighborhood, or on the treadmill. When I was younger, I never thought walking was actually a workout because I was so active doing other things and how I set a step goal for myself and I feel so accomplished when I hit it. It started out real low (around 3K steps) then I increased it slowly over time as I began to recover. I know have a step goal of 7K steps and sometimes I surpass it and sometimes I don’t even come close but I never beat myself over it. Reinjuring myself is never worth the risk of a step goal or anything else, so I always let my body tell me what I’m capable of and not the other way around.

• What was the first thing/person/event/tip that opened the door for you to start pursuing what you wanted to do?

I don’t know if this will be surprising to anyone but it wasn’t my doctor, my physical therapist, or anyone else with credentials behind their name; it was my mobility specialist Patrick Norris (@mobility_mechanic on Instagram). He’s a very confident and knowledgeable concierges’ therapist who specializes in stretching, cupping, and massage gun modalities. We have butted heads on some medical topics and conversations and he is very opinionated about medical professionals in his line of work like chiropractors and surgeons. However, he’s given me so much hope that I will recover from this injury and, surgery or not, he said he’s always in my corner to help me through rehab. Because of him, I’ve been more motivated to push myself in the gym and in life to get back to my own version of optimal living.

• What are the key things that you have learnt that give you more time doing what you love (this could include: practical tips, psychological strategies, kit/technology etc.)

Some things that I’ve learned throughout this injury and recovery process is that I can never expect to get my pre-injured body back nor will I ever be able to do things the same way and those were hard lessons to accept. So, instead of letting that depress me, I chose to let it inspire me to find new routines, new habits and new adventures that I can do. I recently traveled to Lake Tahoe in California and hiked some incredibly beautiful trails to waterfalls and overlooking massive lakes surrounding Lake Tahoe. It was challenging for sure but with the right shoes (that’s crucial!), the right hiking partner, stretching and taking breaks throughout, I was able to manage the entire trip! So, a piece of advice I’d give is definitely mourn your old self and the injury you’ve endured. It’s not healthy to ignore that reality but don’t sit in that misery for too long or else it will eat you up. Decide to pick yourself back up in a new way and find out what you are capable of and start enjoying life again!