lower back pain

Part One: The Taekwondo Spirit is Annoyingly, Overachievingly Willing

Last night in class, which is affectionately known as “cardio night,” my chief instructor tried out a new drill. Instead of setting us up in three lines to do drills straight back and forth across the middle of the room he had us make one long line that snaked around to the side. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I knew it was going to be high-energy.

For the next 15-20 minutes we continuously moved along the two long sides of the training room as my instructor yelled out kicks and eventually added combinations: double punch, snap kick. Okay, not bad for a warm up. Roundhouse, spin kick. Ugh, okay, I can do this even though I hate my spin kick (and what do you know, somehow magically it improved, at least for that night). Snap kick, spin kick, sliding side kick. Wait, what?…ugh…alright, let’s go. Then we moved onto flying kicks…continuously without taking any extra steps in between: jump, jump, jump, jumpFlying snap kick, flying roundhouse, flying side kick, and ki-yahp louder!

My mind and body were having an “on” night. I don’t know if it was having a more consistent flow of movement, or if a break from routine was confusing my brain and muscles in just the right way, but I was doing well, better than I expected. My kicks improved with the repetition, and I wanted to see what I could do next. No, I mean I really pushed myself. I’m always gross-looking after a tough workout, but this time I started getting those little mucousy gobs around the corners of my mouth, and my ponytail stuck to my sweating face every time I whipped around for a spin kick. But I wanted to keep pushing. I was doing so well! I’m leaping! I’m flying! Look at me, I’m getting both knees and feet high in the air!


My lower back, which made its nefarious debut on the blog last November, had been giving me what I called “warning signals” for the last several days. I’m very aware of my body and listen to it carefully, but I don’t always heed its suggestions in a timely manner. I’d felt a dull aching along the lower muscles and a sensation just above my sacrum and sometimes a little flash, like when you get the shivers that run through your body. It wasn’t sharp pain, but It, my suspected bulging disc, was reminding me of its angry presence. (I’m too chicken to get an MRI, so for now we’ll just say a bulging disc is my physical therapist’s prime suspect.)

In my mind’s eye I began to picture the dull, aching sensation as a rock, hard and lumpy, and pouting at the base of my spine. Eventually the sensation morphed into a spiny sea urchin, prickly and cranky. I knew if I wasn’t careful it would turn into a  very pissed off teeny version of Mount Vesuvius…mind you, all this stuff came from my imagination without the help of any painkillers. Told ya I have good body awareness.

About halfway through Monday night’s class, Sea Urchin/Mini Mt. Vesuvius was speaking up louder. I had already planned on stopping when the aching turned into pain in order to avoid another excruciating strain and had even told my chief instructor that I would have to stop at some point, but the little devil on  my shoulder encouraged me to keep kicking and jumping. I felt so strong and agile, dull ache and all. Why stop now? I try to go 100% in every taekwondo class because I love it so much, and this night I was crushing it.

Meanwhile I could have sworn I heard something like, “Bitch, I said be cool!” emanating from somewhere around my lower spine.

I can’t deny the fact that the body my high-octane taekwondo spirit is inhabiting is pushing forty. I have had hip problems since my late twenties, and in the past four years I’ve severely strained my back three times probably thanks to the angry Sea Urchin at the base of my spine. The first two incidents were non-TKD related, and the third was likely a build-up of everything in my life, including taekwondo to having a sedentary job. The first two times were incredibly painful and greatly limited my movement, but I could still drive and walk. The third time kept me bedridden for three days, and I couldn’t walk upright for a week.

That evening  I stayed on the ground during the next series of drills involving jump kicks. I ended the night with an ice pack and started the morning with a heating pad. I decided to be proactive and fess up to my physical therapist so we could avoid another back blowout.

Part Two: The Flesh Is Grumpy, Or My Back Pain Has a First Name. It’s L5/S1.


My physical therapist Cody, who was introduced in September of last year, was jabbing his thumb between the vertebrae at the bottom of the spine and the top of the sacrum while I frowned and winced. We were in an exam room at the clinic and were joined by a sweet-natured blonde PT student who was doing a clinical rotation under Cody’s supervision. I always enjoyed when the students tagged along because I got to listen in on Cody’s explanations and Socratic questioning, plus I got to be a live demonstration of the art and science of physical therapy.

The downside was that I was going to be a live demonstration of how the wonderful ligaments, tendons, and muscles attached to the pelvis respond to an irritated L5/S1 disc, and I knew that would involve pain that was much worse than any of my injuries.

Cody began what had become a regular part of my treatment: digging his fingers into the area of my psoas muscle, more commonly known as the hip flexor. Working on that area has in my case been very effective in loosening up everything around my hip and lower back. It also hurts beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

I’m serious. A psoas “massage” (ugh) goes far beyond the aching and pressure of a typical deep tissue massage and turns into an unholy, white-hot searing pain that makes the room spin and will make you wish for the quick relief of death…or at least the quick relief of this jerk unhooking his fingers from your pelvis.

I’ve been through this many times, but knew I was in trouble when the pain began not long after his fingers began sinking into my flesh. I sipped air, grunted, and did a few slow blinks. I’m a tough little soldier and knew that this monstrous manipulation was for the greater good, so I just grimaced and screwed my eyes shut, focused on steady breathing, and occasionally snapped something sarcastic at Cody.

“What happens when you get a hand cramp?” the student asked. Cody paused for a moment mid-red-hot-poker-probe and thought for a moment.

“You’re probably just using your hands. I rest my arm on her knee and use my body weight to dig in. That way the pressure isn’t on your hands.”

“Oh God forbid the precious physical therapist has any pain during this! That would be so traaaagic!” I piped up, my eyes still shut and my breathing still shaky and shallow. Cody chuckled and dug his fingers in deeper.

“You can do it, you’re a black belt,” he said soothingly, doing what I call the “fishhook” and curving his finger under the lip of my hip bone…or at least that’s what it felt like.

“I’d still be a white belt if I had to do this in taekwondo,” I moaned and covered my face with my hands.

When it was all over, I shakily stood up with a very loosened up hip, and Cody drummed his fingers along my spine and the surrounding muscles. Once again he dug his thumb into the area covering the L5/S1 disc.
“Does it still bother you?” he asked. There was a huge difference. No irritation, no lumpiness. I turned around and tilted my head at him.
“Nope! It feels good as new. I should thank you, but I also kinda want to kick your ass.”

The moral of the story is: Listening to your body and practicing preventive care is just as important as challenging it. 

Reconciling passion with physical reality is something many athletes and martial artists face. When is giving 100% too much? When do we need to back off even when our minds and spirits are on fire and ready to rumble? When does safety and sensibility override endorphins and energy?

Before the cardio class I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I got a hint of what my flesh was trying to teach my spirit. I was chatting with a thirteen year old girl who had competed in the past weekend’s tournament. With a worried look on her face she told me that the side of her foot was still hurting from her sparring match a few days earlier. She was looking to me for answers and reassurance. I asked her if it increased when she walked and if she’d done anything to relieve it. I recommended using ice and letting our instructor know if it hurt too much to continue working out safely.

“Stop if it hurts. That’s the smart thing to do. Listen to your body and take care of it,” I cautioned her before I trotted off to change into my uniform.

Sounds like I need to listen to my own advice.


2 thoughts on “The Spirit is Willing, But the Flesh is Weak…But Sometimes the Spirit Needs to Chill Out and Listen to the Flesh

  1. You are braver than the blackbelt if you have endured psoas massages more than once! I am in awe of your strength, having given and received said moments of pure torture. I have the exact same pain in my lower back….so much fun being reminded that my body is in charge.

    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Wendy! Nice to know someone else out there has endured that particular type of torture. It’s a necessary evil. The same PT (“Cody”) helped me get through terrible hip pain almost ten years ago, and I was running half-marathons after that, so he was the only one I trusted to help me deal with hamstring pain before my black belt test. He didn’t do psoas massages with the original hip pain though. I probably would’t have gone back to him. 🙂

      Yes, the body is in charge. I think being adept enough to adapt to our body’s needs makes us even more skilled practitioners. I may have to leave flying kicks to the kids at some point, but I can keep improving the finer movements of forms and hand-to-hand self-defense…until I get carpal tunnel or something.

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