Physical therapy: Run, walk, run again

U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Spencer Carrier, 86th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron physical therapist, explains foam rolling to Staff Sgt. Randy Sayer, 86th OMRS physical therapy technician, at Ramstein Air Base, Jan. 13. Foam rolling is a technique patients can use to help increase flexibility in their back or soothe muscle knots.

In all my life, I never thought I’d need physical therapy. Sure, I struggled with some aspects of exercising. Not everyone’s built the same. Despite that, I was still surprised when my shins and back decided to give out on me during a regular physical training session.

Imagine burning-hot jagged lines shooting vertically through your shins, coupled with an ache that feels as if a bubble is bursting inside your spine. Then that bubble causes crackling pain to travel through your hips and halfway down your thighs.

Welcome to my world. The elements of the earth, metaphorically speaking, struck me all at once. I didn’t tell anyone this happened. Why?

I figured no one would believe me or I was just trying to get out of exercising. Physical problems beyond broken bones aren’t exactly easy to prove. As a result, I continued on as normally as I could. My lower back ached with a burning pain whenever I walked too long, and even more so when I ran. My shins felt as if they were bowing each time my foot landed on the ground while running. Even the gentlest press of my finger against them resulted in pain.

After two months, I finally couldn’t take it anymore, so I made an appointment with my primary care provider. I told him everything that happened and how long it had been going on. After an examination, he told me I may have had a stress fracture. An X-ray confirmed I didn’t, so the more likely culprit of my pain was shin splints, which also may have had something to do with my back pain.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Randy Sayer, 86th Operational Medical Readiness Squadron physical therapy technician, performs flexibility training at Ramstein Air Base, Jan. 13. Patients utilize a BOSU ball during physical therapy to increase flexibility, strength and core muscles.

Thus, I was referred to physical therapy. The first two appointments were virtual because of COVID-19, both of which my provider and I spoke about what kind of pain I was having and which exercises I could do at home to try and alleviate it. For my shins, I was told not to run or participate in any exercises involving jumping. For my back, I was instructed to avoid sit-ups and to do a few specific stretches to get my back muscles more flexible.

At first, each stretch hurt more than I care to admit and my range of motion wasn’t very far. I couldn’t even do ‘good mornings’ correctly. On top of that, watching my peers run during physical training left me with a sense of longing. I wanted to get better, ‘get back on the horse,’ so to speak, but I knew it would take time.

Within a couple of weeks, though, I noticed the pain eased up a bit. Stretching felt better and I believed my flexibility was improving.

About a month into doing as instructed, I went for an in-clinic visit. My legs hurt less so I figured it was time to try running again, yet I was still feeling some pain in my back. After some chiropractic stretches from the physical therapist, it was concluded that my back muscles as well as my hamstrings, were incredibly tight. I was given the option to do foam rolling and hamstring stretches. Foam rolling felt a little strange at first, but the more I did it, the better it felt.

There were days when I wanted to give up. Even though I was feeling improvement, it wasn’t fast enough and it’s not fun feeling like the weak link. However, I learned patience is key. I kept telling myself everyone is built differently and to have patience with myself.

All of that brings us to now. Physical therapy has helped me tremendously and I encourage anyone who may be having difficulties to reach out to your PCM. Personally, I wish I’d done it sooner. I’m continuing to improve and I hope to be back in tip-top shape within the next few weeks.