Category Archives for "Fitness"


How I Dealt with a Massive Pain the Neck

The information in this post is something I wish I’d read ten years ago…when my neck really started to bother me.  And I mean – REALLY BOTHER ME.

This is a post about how I dealt with the pain of a long term sports injury in my neck through exercise, stretching, strengthening and supplementation.

It all started in high school.  I was playing rugby on the high school rugby team.  Normally, I played wing because at six foot one in height, I was a much better runner than a scrum player.

However, during this one particular game, we’d lost two scrum team mates to injury (that should’ve been a sign of what was to come!) and the coach asked me to sub in for the prop position.  The prop is the name given to one of two players in the rugby scrum who support either side of another player in the middle called the ‘hooker’.

The prop is a very demanding position which puts an incredible amount of stress on your entire body and is best suited to body types that are low, wide and very strong.

If you’ve never seen how the scrum in rugby works – think of it this way, it’s a bunch men tightly gripping each other, bent over in a sort of battling ram position, which is intended to push against the same thing on the opposing team to take control of the rugby ball.

How is that for a visual?  In case that doesn’t work for you – here’s what a scrum looks like and where the props go:

The Rugby Scrum - Can you spot the neck injury?

The Rugby Scrum - Can you spot the neck injury?

The rugby scrum is no place for tall slim guys like me. I still have nightmares about scrums!

Anyway, the other team was way stronger and bigger than ours and my neck and head were pushed hard down onto my rib cage and held there for about 10 seconds – enough to permanently damage my spine.

I knew something bad happened immediately.  The pain was unbelievable. It was lucky that I didn’t break my neck.  I was the third player out of that game because of injury.  The pain took months to go away.  I went to chiropractors, who kept adjusting me, over and over.  Not realizing that I had actually crushed the ends of a few vertebrae.

Which vertebrae?  Specifically cervical vertebrae 5, 6 and 7. Often referred to as C5, C6 and C7.

About 5 years later, in university, (no longer playing any contact sports, except with girls) I noticed that my neck was always bothering me.  5 years after that (when I met my wife) …I began to notice tingling in my right hand…which eventually became numbness in parts of my hand.

Couple those symptoms with massive, chronic pain in my neck and you have the ingredients for a debilitating, distracting pain that I used to live with EVERY day.

Here’s what a recent x-ray of my neck looks like, taken from the right side of my head with my head tilted back:

Nice Filings!  Note the deformation of the vertebrae in the circle - they have developed bone spurs pointing forward and are collapsing. Also note the immobility of that area compared to the upper vertebrae during an anterior head tilt

Nice Filings! Note the deformation of the vertebrae in the circle - they have developed bone spurs pointing forward and are collapsing. Also note the immobility of that area compared to the upper vertebrae during an anterior head tilt.

There is NOTHING LIKE CHRONIC SPINE PAIN. Trust me. I know.   For years I ate 400 -1,200 mg of Ibuprofen (Advil) to deal with the pain.  Eventually that did little to help.

So I went to my doctor.  He recommended I see a neurosurgeon.  We took x-rays and did an MRI.  The results were very telling.

The medical terminology for my spine condition is called Cervical Spondylosis – better known as neck osteoarthritis.  This is where the bones in the neck try to fuse themselves together to prevent further injury.

This is another xRay, but with my head held during normal, forward looking posture.  Note the massive difference between the lower three vertebrae and the upper three vertebrae.  The uppers are normal in shape and space, the lowers are quite deformed with very little space in between

This is another xRay of my from the right, but with my head held straight during normal, forward looking posture. Note the massive difference between the lower three vertebrae and the upper three vertebrae. The uppers normal in shape and space, the lower are quite deformed with very little space in between. Those bone spurs push forward into the back of my esophagus and downward onto my brachial nerves.

The neurosurgeon said that surgery is an option if the pain and numbness increase.  This would mean a complete disectomy where the offending vertebrae are fused together.

No thanks.

However, in the meantime, he recommended a couple of very simple actions, which I take almost daily.

The result of these simple actions has been literally miraculous for me.  I no longer need to take any over the counter pain killers. I very rarely feel any pain in my neck – maybe once or twice a month.

And the numbness in my hand has been gone for years.

The reason that I had numbness in my hand was because the facet joints in my neck were compressing the brachial nerves to the point where sensation and strength was diminishing in my entire right arm and hand.  This is commonly known as Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

He told me that my injury is very similar to what happens to people who are in car crashes and sustain a whiplash injury.

The neurosurgeon recommended some physiotherapy and to stay away from chiropractic treatments because stretching and strengthening the muscles in my neck is more important that having it adjusted.

I took my x-rays to physio, who had seen many of this type of neck injury.  My physio showed me one exercise, which I do almost daily, that has been very helpful.

Very simply, I lay on my back with a bath towel rolled up and placed under my neck.  Then I perform what I call my ‘chin tucks’.  I then perform ten to twenty repetitions of tucking my chin down firmly towards my chest.

The difference for me between the chin tuck that you might do say, at Pilates, or in posture classes, is the TOWEL UNDER my neck.

The KEY with this exercise is NOT to lift your head by engaging the sternocleidomastoid muscles;

sternocleidomastoideus -  - I call these the "model muscle" because you always see this muscle prominently in photos of models when their heads are turned to the side.  It is NOT what you want to use for the "chin tuck" execise.


but rather to use the core muscles of your neck, such as the Longus Colli to do the pulling;

longus colli

longus colli

This one exercise helps to keep the natural curve in my neck, which Cervical Spondylosis will eventually eliminate.  If you look at my X-Ray, you will see that my neck does not have a natural curve to it.  In fact, it is actually quite straight up and down.

This is NOT how the neck is supposed to look.

Because of my injury, I have lost the natural ‘lordosis’, or curve.  This exercise, helps to both strengthen my neck muscles and fight the effects of neck osteoarthritis.

Here is what a normal spine should look like:

Normal Cervical Spine

Normal Cervical Spine - Note the Curve and the Square Vertebrae

I have also invested in a neck traction device, which I will admit is very Draconian in its application.  It looks like one of those Medieval torture devices that was used to stretch people until their head pops off.

You fill up a weight with water…I usually use the whole back, about twenty five pounds.  This goes over a pulley, which attaches to a rope on a door, which attaches to a brace that straps around your head and chin.

You then sit in a chair with this pulling your head up (and thus releasing pressure on your spinal column) for as long as you want.

Great horror movie stuff.

Click here to see what this bizarre thing looks like.

I use it when I feel my neck getting a little stiff, which is very rarely now.

In terms of supplements, I find that Fish Oil does a terrific job of taking my pain away. There is something in fish oil, so my doctor tells me, that does a very good job of managing inflammation in the body.  I use the Ascenta brand here in Canada.

I also wrote about this product in my post about managing depression.

Lastly, I find that cardio exercise does a great job of eliminating the pain.  Hiking, biking or stationary equipment all do the trick for me.  I need about 35 minutes or more with my heart rate at 120 beats per minutes for the duration.

The effects of cardio exercise alone I’ve found can eliminate my pain for up to 4 hours… .

Of all the injuries that one can sustain, I’d have to imagine that anything to do with the spine is one of the worst and I think that I’m managing mine very well.

So, what’s the moral of this story?

Keep yourself and your kids out of contact sports, especially where very strong men, bent over, are involved!


Keeping Depression Out of My Life

One in five people suffer from major depression at some point in their lives according to American Medical Association.I have been one of those people and have developed some great strategies to keep depression out of my life.

It is postulated that many of those people who suffer from depression, suffer their entire lives without any help.

And men are worse than women when it comes to dealing with it…

Clinical depression is actually a disease that can be treated with and without medication. I have done both and do much better without medication.

Years ago I was working for a big software company and was traveling globally on a regular basis for almost 2 years. Some months I was on the road for three weeks at a time in a different part of the world each week.

It was an exciting lifestyle…at first…but eventually became the nemesis of my mental well being. Rich foods, weird hours, different cultures…lots of stress from mis-managed expectations and professional performance commitments started to take their toll on me.

Sitting in an airplane for 10+ hours at time does nothing to help depression either.

My doctor did what most doctors would do. He wanted to take my pain away immediately knowing that I couldn’t quickly change my lifestyle and prescribed me 5 mg’s of Cipralex every other day.

And guess what dudes and dudettes? It worked. For a while.

Then, I started to feel a bit fogged in mentally, began gaining weight and lost my libido. While I felt “ok”…the side effects caused me anxiety of a new kind.

So I stopped. Tapered off.

And began a new approach to deal with anxiety. In the interest of brevity…I am going to skip the next part of my journey and just bust out the list of stuff that I have learned to be VERY effectively manage depression in my life.

These things totally work for me and may not work for you. Some of them are NOT the best alternatives eitherI understand that.

But hey…life is short and I want to get though it as best I can, while enjoying the ride a bit too.

So here’s what I do:

  1. B-Vitamins. I take a high potency B Vitamin once or twice a day. They are water soluble and will make your pee look like a melted bright orange Mr. Freeze. But – The B Vitamins are proven to help with mood. In fact many people are clinically low in B1 (Thiamine) and B3 (Niacin) I have learned – both of which have massive benefits for people dealing with depression. I trust the Natural Factors brand.
  2. High Potency fish oil. Most of us need more omegas in our diet anyway. There have been some great clinical studies about the ability for fish oil to improve mood. My naturopath uses fish oils to help people get of SSRI’s (depression meds) all the time with great success she tells me. I use the Ascenta brand.
  3. Nicotine. I like cigars. They give me a lift, they taste good and help me to relax and feel good. I don’t smoke them every day and I know they contribute to mouth cancer. I don’t inhale. But I dig ’em nonetheless. Nicotine is shown to help with depression and I’ve read some interesting studies online about big Pharma working on straight nicotine pills as an anti-depressant option for consumers.
  4. Exercise. I’ve always loved pumping iron and getting my heart rate up. Cardio would be my first choice if I couldn’t lift weights for some reason.I usually hit the gym daily and get my heart rate up to about 130 beats per minute for at least 30 minutes on the elliptical after doing some resistance exercises.I sweat a lot. There is a TON of research to validate the positive effects on mood from exercise. And I find that the effects last for up to 6 hours some days. I could do a whole post on exercise.
  5. Sleep. I love to sleep. Any time I can get more sleep, I am a happier guy. Sleep does wonders for the body and endocrine system. Usually I aim for about 8 or 9 hours a night…but I don’t always get it. Sometimes a nap helps me to feel better too.
  6. Cooking. I love food…eating it and cooking it. I love Mexican, Sushi, Thai and Jamaican. I love trying new combinations of fresh, local ingredients in the kitchen. One of my favorite “happy dishes” to prepare and make is with Heirloom tomatoes (or Heritage tomates as we call here in Canada – same thing), balsamic vinegar, feta cheese, fresh ground pepper, fresh basil, GOOD olive oil and some sea salt. Mmmm. Just thinking about that dish makes me feel good. Somehow, the process of cooking is a means for me to feel good.I recently started growing many of my own herbs and some vegetables during the warmer months and it’s been incredibly fun.
  7. Alcohol. Yep – I know what you’re thinking…alcohol for someone with depressive tendencies is not a good thing. But I find that there are two drinks which do not make me more depressed and actually happier…even if I drink too much and am hung to the gills the next day (because alcohol IS a depressant). The first is really good red wine. I love red wines…sirahs/ shiraz/ cabs/ and malbecs/ zinfandels…I like all the big, beefy reds. If it’s SO huge, that I have to chew it before swallowing it and it’s really a bold, big red, then I am even happier. Gary Vaynerchuk has a great way of presenting and thinking about wines. He makes me laugh too – you should really check out his blog some time. The second drink that I love is 100% agave tequila with a whole fresh squeezed lime. Good tequila is actually a barbituate according to those in the know. Strangely, I can drink a lot of tequila, keep my game on AND function with near normalcy the next day.  I have learned that tequila (the good stuff) is the easiest hard liqour for the renal system to break down. I realize that it may sound like I’m talking about how booze works for me as a coping strategy…but 80% of society drinks alcohol, and 40% of them drink too much according to my doc. I usually don’t have more than a few drinks a night, a couple nights a week and ALWAYS with friends or family – NEVER alone. And then the same on weekends. My doc thinks that I’m within safe limits and doing fine.
  8. Socializing. I never used to spend enough time on this very important element of my life and if I did – it was at work…or with work people. But now, I make it a priority. It just makes me feel good to spend time with good friends and family and shoot the breeze. I don’t care if I’ve heard the same stories or jokes before. We live in such a fast paced world with not enough connections that matter. A good friend of mine just returned from Italy with his girlfriend and remarked how much people socialize at night…every night. It’s just a way a life there. And he also said how happy people seemed there…and how he is lucky to see ONLY one or two good friends a week while back home in Vancouver. Maybe he should move out of Vancouver!
  9. Intimacy. Spending close, quiet time with my wife is calming and uplifting for me. It doesn’t matter if we are just sitting on the deck chatting, watching TV or eating dinner together. Doing more of that is always a good thing for my mental well being and helps me to feel grounded. She is very smart, calming and kind. Being around her just makes me happy.
  10. Blogging. Who knew? I like blogging. Because I like to write and don’t care if anyone ever reads my stuff…I do it without prejudice and expectation. There is something stimulating for me to wrestle with my thoughts and try to shape them into content that is coherent enough to read. I wish that I had more time to write.I also love the endeavor of the technologies related to blogging because it keeps me into what’s happening online.
  11. Music. I love music…all kinds of music.Music makes me feel good. My home is wired with speakers in just about every room through one of my favorite toys – the Sonos Wireless music system. This is another proven, powerful way that I keep my moods up and depression out of my life. I work out to music and drive with music. My iPod has to be one of the most important technology gadgets that I own.
  12. Being outdoors. I’m not exactly Grizzly Adams and I’m not talking about always doing crazy hikes here, but I do like to just be outdoors, a lot. Even in the winter, when it’s cold and dark…being outside works well for me. If we can have a camp fire with the neighbours…go for a walk alone…or just sit outside and enjoy the fresh air, it all lifts my spirits. I used to live in Vancouver, BC where it seemed to rain ALL the time, something I couldn’t stand any more. This was not a good climate for anyone who might have any depression. Where I live now, in Kelowna, it is very dry and rarely rains.  Making the move to a place with a drier weather pattern has helped me a lot.
  13. Laughter. This is of course an obvious one. Laughter just makes me feel good. Loads of research here on the power of laughter. But it’s worth mentioning here because I am proactive with it. I actively seek out funny people, shows, books and movies. Two of my favorites lately are Eddie Izzard’s and Dane Cook’s stuff. They are both very smart and totally crazy funny.
  14. Pets. We have three cats and they bring me great joy. When I traveled a lot, I missed them. But now that I work from home predominantly, I find they are a powerful ally in treating depression as they come to visit me throughout the day. I love animals and I especially like cats because of their complicated inner lives, agility, natural affection, calmness and incredible cleanliness. There’s something peaceful about looking at a cat sleeping.
  15. Dark Chocolate. For me, there is no treat like dark chocolate to lift my spirits.  Just to be clear – dark chocolate is anything north of 72% …it needs to say 72% cacao or better. If it isn’t 72% or better, then it’s just junk food. Having said that, dark chocolate looks good…exotic to me. It smells good. And I love the taste of it and how it feels in my mouth. In addition, it always gives me a bit of a buzz and the high magnesium content relaxes me (magnesium deficiency happens to the be most common mineral deficiency even for those following a balanced diet). Cacao is a very good antioxidant too. I’m not talking about munching down on chocolate bars left and right here. But I DO usually eat a few squares every day. Some of my favorite bars are by Zazubean, Vosges and Green & Blacks. None of these manufacturers have bitter tasting dark chocolate and are always a safe bet, although a bit more expensive. and lastly….
  16. Talking about depression. Especially with people who also have struggled with it. I used to be embarrassed that I was or could be depressed…like something was wrong with me. But when I realized how prevalent it is and that there a lot of people who struggle with depression. It is actually very common and sadly, most people do nothing to manage it. That is sad, because it’s actually quite easy to deal with whether it’s acute (like from a major life event) or chronic (like a chemical imbalance). Either way, there is nothing wrong with depression in an of itself.

What IS wrong is not doing anything about it….

Anyway – a bit of a long winded post – I realize that, but these are the things that have me happy as can be and keep depression at bay. Most of them are simple, low (or no) cost and easy to do on a daily basis.

If would love to hear about any feedback you have or how you manage depression.