Strange question, huh? Before you get too excited, I’m not about to tell you that a low carbohydrate diet is a remedy for back pain. Instead, I am going to explain a remarkably parallel experience I’ve had. I never made the connection until this week when a reader asked an unrelated question about lower back pain.
The best, worst experience of my life
As my third year of medical school was winding down, and I was just about to embark on a bold fourth year curriculum of back-to-back-to-back-to-back surgical sub-internships, I was on top of the world. I was 27 years old, living in Palo Alto, California with my best friends, I had a wonderful girlfriend, I was working hard to prepare for my application to a surgical residency, and I still found time to work out like a wannabe Olympian. What more could I ask for?
One sunny, June afternoon I got out of the pool after a good workout and felt a very strange pain in my lower back. After riding my bike a few hundred yards to the weight room, it wasn’t getting better. Actually, it was getting worse. So bad, in fact, I did something I’d never done before – I decided to skip my workout and pedal home.
I iced my back, took some ibuprofen, and went to bed. The next morning I woke up only to realize I literally could not get out of bed. After struggling for some time I had to call my roommate to get me out of bed and help me to the bathroom. I called my chief resident and apologized that I would not be able to come in to the hospital that day, and assured him I’d be fine the next day. But I wasn’t. Nor was I fine the day after or the day after.
A few days later I managed to limp my way into the hospital for rounds and with the help of the residents and nurses who were kind enough to give me intramuscular injections of a potent drug called toradol, I was able to survive, just barely. The pain had gotten worse over the week and I was unable to sleep in any position except lying face down over a counter in an “L” shape. But the worst was yet to come.
Within a few more days, not only was my back hurting, but I was also experiencing profound sensory pain in my left leg and left foot. I realize this may sound hyperbolic, but I am not exaggerating at all when I say it felt like the skin was being torn off the bottom of my left foot. The only way I could sleep was to tie my left foot in a plastic bag of ice to numb it and take 100 mg of Benadryl (enough to put a horse to sleep). When the ice melted, I would wake up in pain and need to repeat the routine.
Within about 3 weeks of this back and leg pain, I was starting to worry that something very serious was going on. I’d had a backache or two before, and in one case it even took a week to resolve. But this was very different. One night, when the pain was so bad I couldn’t mask it with any cocktail of drugs I finally relented and went to the ER. After a thorough exam, the physician sent me to the MRI scanner (for those of you reading this outside of the U.S., it must sound crazy to think that a patient could have a MRI scan so quickly).
The MRI showed not only a large herniation of my L5-S1 disk (a bulging of the disk between my L5 and S1 vertebrae), but it also showed a free fragment of broken disk sitting directly on the S1 nerve root. While the large bulging disk was likely the cause of my back pain, the free fragment pressing one of the largest nerves in my body was undoubtedly the culprit in my leg and foot pain.
The next morning I was taken to surgery by a (supposedly) talented and reputable neurosurgeon. I was actually very relieved and excited, despite never having undergone surgery or general anesthesia before. I was told this surgery would fix the problem immediately. But it didn’t. In fact, as it turned out, this was the beginning of a long, sordid ordeal, albeit with a positive take-away that is the point of my story.
I woke up from surgery and immediately realized the pain was still there, in my left foot. Worse yet, I had trouble moving my right foot, which was completely fine before surgery. Over the next few days it became clear I had developed something called a foot drop on my right side. I would later learn the surgeon had operated on the wrong side and likely injured the nerve on the right side. Things had gone from bad to worse.
Compounding this, the surgeon who operated on me refused to believe my description of what I was experiencing and was convinced I was just being “soft” for complaining of persistent pain and a new problem. After 2 weeks of further deterioration — and only when another physician examined me, and herself ordered another MRI — did my surgeon agree I still had a significant surgical lesion.
That night I went back to the operating room and, this time, operating on the correct side, the surgeon removed a 4-centimeter fragment of disc from my spinal canal that was still compressing my S1 nerve root (below).
The next three months proved to be what I would later describe as the “best, worst” experience of my life – an assertion I still maintain nearly 15 years later. For a number of other reasons and complications I suffered that I won’t detail here for sake of time and space, I became completely debilitated after developing another complication called a facet arthropathy. So much so that my mother flew to California to stay with me, just to feed me and drive me around to endless doctor appointments.
My dream of becoming a surgeon had quickly vanished along with any athletic aspirations I once had. I worried whether I’d ever walk again and had begun to accept the fact that I may be addicted to pain killers for the rest of my life. [For anyone familiar with such medications, I was taking about 200 mg of oxycodone per day – about 40 times what a “normal” person would take following a painful dental procedure.]
Things I once took for granted – walking, being able to lean over the sink while brushing my teeth, sneezing without feeling like my kidneys were being ripped out – became distant and fading memories.
Fortunately, with the help of some remarkable doctors (which included several more trips to the operating room), kinesiologists, and physical therapists, I would slowly learn to move again without pain. I had to train as hard and deliberately for this as I had for every other athletic endeavor I’d ever poured myself into.
I experienced firsthand what narcotic withdrawal is like and the depression that accompanies it. I experienced firsthand what an arrogant surgeon can do to a patient. I learned more about medicine in that year than at any other time in my medical training.
As a postscript to this story, I eventually made a remarkable recovery and was able to begin my surgical residency a year later with minimal pain. Today my back is stronger than it was before this incident. Except for the few people I have shared this story with (until now), no one would ever know what I went through. I move through the world like someone with a perfectly healthy and strong lower back.
I also gained a profound understanding of pain and addiction, which became one of the most valuable lessons I carried with me through my brief medical career. It allowed me to understand what a heroin-addicted person goes through, when viewed through the lens of my own experience with the strongest painkillers.
A few years later I would become close friends with Drs. Marty Makary and Peter Pronovost when our paths crossed during my residency at Johns Hopkins. Marty and Peter have become two of the biggest pioneers of patient safety and the avoidance of medical mistakes. My story became one of many presented in Marty’s soon-to-be-released book, Unaccountable.
Years later, based on my experience and research I did while overcoming this injury, I gave many talks on the treatment and prevention of lower back injuries and have become a minor expert on the subject. If anyone is interested, here is a link to one of my presentations (slides only, no video/audio).
What does this have to do with a low carb diet?
Today, when I pick up anything, whether it be a cotton ball or a piece of paper, I do it with my legs, not my back. When I lean over the sink to brush my teeth, I support the weight of my torso with my arm. When I get out of a car or out of bed I position myself not to torque my back. When I need to lift a 265 pound barbeque out of my car, like I did a few months ago, my lower back is never under strain. How did I learn to do this? Through a very deliberate and long process of adaptation. I had to re-learn how to move, how to sit, how to lift, how to sneeze. Were it not for the long and painful road to recovery I endured, I may have never learned these things.
Many people who suffer back injuries never really recover. When they do “recover” from one injury, the rate of relapse is very high. While no two cases are identical, much of the reason for this lies in 2 factors:
- The injured person does not learn how to modify their behavior to avoid re-injury.
- The injured person does not take the necessary steps to strengthen and rehabilitate their back.
“Curing” a back injury is not a temporary thing or something that just happens because we wish it to be so. It is a very deliberate lifestyle change. Over time, as we form habits, we can go from consciously thinking through every necessary behavior change – something easy to do when we are in pain – to a place where the behavior is more automatic. But this takes time.
In many ways, transitioning to a low carbohydrate diet is similar. Consider the figure below.
Just like with behaviors that predispose us to lower back injury, most people go through life just eating on autopilot, but eating the wrong things, the “default” things. They graze in a reactionary manner without any understanding of how what they eat impacts their body. They are eating in an unconsciously incorrect manner.
Many people learn that what they are eating is actually not ideal and not predisposing them to maximum health. They move into a place of consciously incorrect behavior. They realize drinking a Coke with fries and a candy bar is not good for them, despite still eating them. Some of these people go one step further and actually make corrections – removing sugar and simple carbohydrates from their diet, for example – but doing so requires great effort and deliberate action. They are now in the realm of consciously correct eating.
This is the place where most people get stuck. It hurts. It’s hard to do. They get frustrated. Maybe even ridiculed by friends and family. Most turn back to consciously incorrect eating with brief periods of re-visiting consciously correct eating. Hence, only a few people make their way into the final stage of unconsciously correct eating, just as only a few people with serious back injuries ever make it into a state of unconsciously correct movement.
Because it takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. It’s different for everyone, but I know for me it took almost 2 years to get to the point of unconsciously correct eating. I had spent 36 years mindlessly eating the wrong way, just as I had spent 27 years mindlessly moving the wrong way before injuring my back.
Sixty years ago it was quite easy to default into the correct way of eating because we were mostly surrounded by foods that supported such eating. But, our food environment has changed dramatically and today’s default eating (e.g., high amounts of sugar, grains, highly refined carbohydrates) puts most of us – about 60 or 70% of us – at serious risk of metabolic disease. One day, I believe, the work of NuSI and others will fix this problem, and through the elucidation of unambiguous science allow us to create a food environment that supports easier (and more affordable) default eating of the right foods. However, until then we have to go through these stages.
If you find yourself feeling frustrated at how difficult it is to get from consciously eating well to unconsciously eating well, remember that you are on a journey. If you are consistent and patient, if you remind yourself that you are embarking on a journey to change your life and not a short-term fix to look good in a bathing suit next month, you will embrace the right mindset to find the ‘sweet’ spot of unconsciously correct eating.
I will be the first to admit that this is not easy. But, if you’re reading this, you’re already down the path and you’ll be better able to help the next person who struggles through the 4 stages of transition because you’ve experienced it yourself.