Karate isn’t just about chops and kicks. It can also be about recovery and long-term fitness.

June of 2008 was one of those life-defining months for me. With nearly 15 years of chronic back pain under my belt, I had spent two weeks in May suffering through the worst bout of back pain yet and trying to calm it with heavy medication. On the morning of June 23rd, I just couldn’t take it anymore and decided to head to the emergency room. I was expecting a Morphine shot and another cocktail of pain killers, muscle relaxers, and anti-inflamitories but what I got was emergency back surgery. Dangerous numbness in my left toes and a severe “foot drop” (meaning my toes would drag on the floor when I walked) led the ER doctor to order an MRI, which detected shattered chunks of one of my discs lodged against my sciatic nerve. As a result, every time I walked, these chunks would slash against the nerve causing pain and damage to the nerve.

Twelve hours later I was in recovery with a brand new 6 inch incision and no more free-floating chunks. Because the surgery required that the surgeon “unweave” the muscles in my back, I was also left with virtually no muscle memory as to how to sit up, walk, or roll over in bed. Re-teaching my body how to do these simple activities took a good week and were extremely painful and frustrating. The trade-off, however, was significantly less back pain. After allowing the incision to heal for two weeks, I was allowed to return to work on a limited basis and began 8 weeks of pretty intense physical therapy to strengthen my back and left leg. In addition, I was instructed to avoid any strenuous activities like golf, bowling, and heavy lifting for a full year. I was also told that there was no guarantee that this wouldn’t happen again, but the key to minimizing the chance was to strengthen my back muscles and hamstrings. Since walking and stretching were the best thing I could do, I walked…and I stretched. But what I found was that after the surgery, my flexibility was nearly non-existant. I never have been really flexible, but the surgery had my back and hamstrings so tight they felt like they were going to snap when I tried to simply touch my toes.

…and then came Karate.

After sitting on the sidelines for a year, a friend suggested that I joined the Colahan Karate Club to see if it might help me regain some of my flexibility. Since my doctor had approved, as long as I took it very easy, I came down for a couple of free sessions to see if it might help. After two classes, I was hooked. My goal wasn’t to come in and learn how to kick-ass…I just wanted to be be able to move again and work on strengthening my back and legs so I never had to worry about chronic back pain again.

What I got, was exactly what I put into it.

During the weeks where I attended class regularly, my flexibility improved and my back pain continued to diminish. On weeks where I got caught up in work and missed class, my back gently reminded me that skipping class was not an option. Over the course of the last year, I have significantly reduced my back pain to the point that I rarely feel it, I have increased my flexibility, earned my blue belt rank, and made some pretty good friends along the way! Two classes a week have turned into a lifestyle change that has me focusing not just on flexibility, but on self-defense and mastering the fluid movements of kata. My son has even joined me and we regularly attend karate classes together as a father-son activity.

Many thanks go to Sensei Colahan, who was sensitive to my surgery and back condition and taught me exercises that I could perform at home that would not only enhance my karate skills, but continue to extend my flexibility. The combined benefit of flexibility training, aerobic exercise, and muscle control have been key in not only shaping my recovery, but defining my fitness goals going forward. I’ll turn 40 next January and plan on being in the best shape of my life.

If you think Karate is just about chops and kicks, think again. I would encourage anyone looking to recover from an injury to explore a martial art and determine whether it might help you in your recovery process. In my case, I’ve been living pain free (and medication free) for the last year and I attribute a large part of my success to my participation in Karate.

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