The Magic Tennis Ball
that fixed my spine & helped my scoliosis
The Day the News Came
I will never forget coming home the day that I learned I had scoliosis. I was 12 years old, and I had just finished walking back from school. My mom told me that she had some news for me and we should sit down to discuss it. For a 12-year-old, this can be a bit intimidating. Could I have forgotten to feed the dog or take out the trash? I was curious about what came next, a consequence maybe?
Ends up all my chores were done and I had not forgotten anything. Our discussion took another direction when my mom told me that the doctor we visited a week back called and confirmed his suspicions. An x-ray we made the previous week confirmed the diagnosis that I had scoliosis. My first words/response was -“scoli-what?” For a 12-year-old this was a big, confusing and scary word. Pronouncing the word was hard enough, but understanding what an extra curve in my spine meant and why it was not a natural/healthy thing was even more difficult.
If it Hurts, Don’t Do it & if it is Broken Stay Away From it.
If it hurts, don’t do it and since your back has an extra curve in it, well, basically leave that area alone. This was the advice I received from my doctor and was routinely confirmed by different physical therapists. The 1990’s was the era of not touching things when they were “broken.” I was given simple rehab exercises, back strengthening tips, and told scoliosis was something I was going to live with. Not the most empowering statement to give a young mind, but I get it. Easier to be “honest” than risking the chance of motivating me at the beginning – only to fear the inevitable crash at the end when I realize my scoliosis is here to stay.
From 1992 – 2004
Throughout my entire undergraduate degree in Sports Medicine/Athletic Training, I was always curious about the spine. Different bones (called vertebrae’s) that link together like a chain give our body the ability to move as a complete unit, or individually like a snake. Tight hip flexors cause the lower curve to increase (known as an increased lordotic curve, or better known for creating the “bubble butt”) and sitting too much can cause the middle of the back to arch like a “C” and make someone look like a hunch back. However, all of these spinal issues are caused by muscles becoming tight due to the spine being in poor positions for a prolonged time. My professors agreed that these issues could be addressed and fixed, yet told me applying the same logic to scoliosis was incorrect. I argued that shortness creates a tightness on one side and a lengthened muscle on the other, and if I were to sit someone in a position that matched my scoliosis they would also develop a spine that curved like mine. My professor half-heartedly agreed and told me to sit down so we could begin our lecture. This conversation would happen throughout the next ten years with different health professionals.
If You Don’t Use it, You Will Lose it.
We all know the saying “if you don’t use it, you will lose it.” I would make a similar argument for our body. Why not address the curvature of my spine with yoga classes and stretches the work towards balancing out my spine? Or use mobility exercises that will help loosen up the joints in-between my vertebrae’s that are affected by this curvature? Ok, full disclosure, I should have been much more diligent with the yoga part. I did, however, focus on the stretches needed to test my theory. Any of you that have scoliosis know that we suffer from back pain much easier than the norm. I relate this to the additional curvature; thus, increasing the extra tightness we carry in our spinal muscles. Sleeping on a different mattress, flying long hours in a plane, or sitting too much in a car can have more significant adverse effects on us than the average person. However, if we can decrease the extra curvature even by a little, maybe we can reduce some of the pain. I was set on my way to play with my spine and see the possibilities – what happened next shocked and surprised all of us.
The Tennis Ball That Fixed My Spine
Somehow throughout my life with a tight back and scoliosis one of my vertebrae had “fallen” a bit forward (see picture below.) My orthopedic surgeon told me I had nothing to worry about, but I disagreed. I foresaw this becoming a massive issue in the future as it would put more pressure on the disc in-between. After a few glasses of wine one evening, I was struck by an interesting idea. What if I used a tennis ball to loosen that area up (the tennis ball would perform mobilizations on my spine/vertebrae) and a certain stretch (given for free in my scoliosis program) that focused on lengthening my posterior line, maybe I could convince the vertebrae to go back where it belonged. Luckily, I was clever enough to start with a “before” x-ray. This x-ray would be crucial if I were successful, as “no proof” would be synonymous with “no way.”
The Gong That Made My Fingers Go Cold
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. Lying on the floor with the tennis ball under my back, and breathing in and out while flattening my spine on the ball. The last few weeks my mobility was much better, and my posterior line had opened up quite a bit. That is when it happened. The ball pushed on my vertebrae like it always had, but this time I felt something unique. I felt the ball push deep into my spine, and my vertebrae move in a way I had never experienced. Simultaneously my fingers and toes went cold, and I heard a soft “gong” as if I just finished a yoga class and someone softly struck this calming southeast Asian instrument.
My initial thought was to check the movement in my fingers and toes. I did not want to be the first physio to paralyze himself with a two-year-old tennis ball. Not only was I not paralyzed, but for the next few weeks, clients were asking me if I was a bit taller or if something else had changed. I had noticed that my movement was better and that my overall back pain was less. It was time to go back to the doctor and get the second x-ray to examine the results.
Making the Impossible – Possible.
Luckily, the orthopedic surgeon is not only a fantastic doctor but also a good friend. Together we looked at my x-ray, and he was impressed with the results. Since the spine (or vertebrae to be more accurate) functions like a chain, the vertebrae that moved back into place affected the health of my entire spine. You can see this for yourself in the two pictures below.
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