How Ashleigh Defeated All Odds and Bounced ‘Back’ From Being Broken
After 10 years of semi-chronic low back pain, advanced disc degeneration, and severe facet osteoarthritis, my back exploded, making May 2014 one of the toughest months I have ever endured.
MRI findings a decade earlier were clear: L4-S1 segments were severely degenerative, as were the supporting discs. Facet joints were arthritic by the age of 23. Nobody knew why this was happening or what to do about it.
Most doctors suggested quitting weight training and sports, while manual therapists offered help through trigger point release. I continued all aspects of training, which, at that time, included weights, varsity soccer, and Integrative Street Combative (ISC) training.
The pain never stopped me - I just figured out ways of doing the activities I loved a bit differently.
Fast forward 10 years. I'd been training hard, as usual, in the typical quest for physical improvement and ongoing figure shows. Training through moderate to severe sacroiliac (SI Joint) and lumbar pain was typical. Some days were excellent and pain-free, while others were entirely painful, but training was always completed regardless.
Then "the" day arrived. That dreadful sensation of disc herniation grabbed me hard. I crawled to the car, made my way home, and cried on the floor. The next morning I woke up to gradual increases in numbness of my left foot, which rapidly spread up into the calf, hamstring, and glute. Over the course of the day, I lost the use of my left leg.
Two weeks passed, during which time I truly believed I'd wake up one morning recovered, with the numbness gone and function returned. Colleagues advised an MRI because the neurological function was absent and not improving. I'd lost 3 inches off the left calf.
MRI findings were severe and lead to immediate neurosurgeon consults:
Slight grade 1 posterolisthesis of L4 upon L5 with a 7mm disc herniation, indenting the thecal sac, and arthropathy of the facet joints, narrowing the foramina. 7mm is a long way in the world of the spine. It turns out the disk fragment had also migrated caudally and wrapped around the S1 nerve root. This explained why my left leg/foot went numb and stopped working.
My first surgical consult was with one of the top surgeons in the country. He wasn't optimistic about the return of the absent achilles reflex or confident I'd regain normal use of the leg. If nerve damage was severe, which was unknown but possible, the neurological function wasn't predictable. Nobody can predict whether nerve regrowth will occur but, if it does, it will occur at a rate of 1mm/day, making the distance between the low back and foot seem immense.
Next, I had surgery, took 3 days off work to recover, trained everything I could train, and bypassed traditional post-op recovery protocols. Recovery protocols are for the general population of unfit folks - not for me! Numbness remained on the outside of my foot (still does to this day) and it took around 3 weeks for the calf to cramp, meaning the neurological function was beginning to return. I trained myself to walk normally and in high heels all over again, which is a mandatory part of figure competition! I competed three months later, taking second overall, and qualifying for Nationals.
Right around this time, Coach Christopher Sommer was interviewed on Robb Wolf's podcast. He spoke of low back injuries and my ears perked up. I'd been studying low back rehab for a decade, which emphasized neutral spine and gluteal recruitment techniques for improvement of low back pain. Clearly, something was missing: dozens of aspects of creating a healthy spine!
As an athlete, I dove into the GymnasticBodies Foundation Series right away. I picked strength and mobility elements that looked hard, skipping many that looked too easy. Then, in July 2015, I attended a GB Level One Seminar and was in for a rude awakening. I was weak, tight, and poorly conditioned in this curriculum. That weekend of training crushed about 50 of us, all good athletes. Yet, I left feeling better physically than I'd felt in YEARS! That's when things got serious for me as an athlete and a future GymnasticBodies Affiliate. I dove back into the GB Course Curriculum and totally changed my approach to training. I prioritized Gymnastic Strength TrainingTM first, weight training second.
Ashleigh has rebuilt amazing strength and mobility using the GymnasticBodies Online Courses.
In July of 2016, I decided to get another MRI. Improvements in symptoms, as well as function, were so pronounced after only a year of GSTTM I was convinced structural improvements were likely since now, most days, my low back feels strong and silent. MRI findings and images were quite exceptional this year.
In the world of severe lumbar disc degeneration, 7mm protrusion, loss of neurological function, neurosurgery, and a somewhat poor prognosis, these changes are very rarely seen in the world of neurosurgeons. Jani Valdivia, MD, FAANS, a Tampa-based neurosurgeon and close friend, reviewed these images and findings stating:
"The grade one posteriolisthesis shown in May 2014 is no longer evident in the latest MRI. The facet arthropathy seems less evident. The disc protrusion seems to be resolved in the latest MRI. These structural improvements are not often seen in patients, and Ash’s return and improvement of function, to the degree she's displaying, are very rare with the severity of the previous spinal pathology”.
I'm thrilled to be on this journey of structural, functional, and performance improvement, blessed beyond my wildest dreams to have stumbled upon Coach Sommer and GymnasticBodies.
GymnasticBodies rehabbed my injury and saved my life as an athlete - forever in your debt
-Ashleigh Gass, CSCS, MS, CCN, CNS, CISSN.
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