A Patient’s View: Athlete Scores Against Chronic Pain

Exercise, meditation and mindfulness, yoga and an anti-inflammatory diet lead to a nearly pain-free life

Like many teenagers, John Slay wanted to be a professional athlete. As a baseball, basketball and football player in high school, John was focused on achieving his goal.

One day while John was playing basketball, his knee started hurting. He shrugged it off as a minor sports injury. Then doctors told him that he had been born with arthritis and the pain was coming from his spine.  The arthritis led to disc disease so bad that soon John could barely walk.

Discs are rubbery cushions between the bones in the back that absorb shock when we walk or run and help us bend and twist. When discs break down or collapse, they lose their cushioning ability, causing pain and stiffness in the back or neck. When a disc presses on nearby nerves or the spinal cord, the pain sometimes goes down the arms or legs.

Both arthritis and disc disease usually happen in older people. John was just 17. “One doctor told me I had the back of a 90-year-old,” he says. John had a spinal injection to relieve the pain at age 17, and three surgical procedures between ages 26 and 45. Doctors told him he would need more surgery about every 10 years.

The Winning Game Plan

Eventually, John found his own path to healing—without repeated surgeries. It took him years to find an integrative health approach made up of exercise, meditation and mindfulness, yoga and an anti-inflammatory diet.

“Life for me now is amazing. I can do pretty much anything I want to do,” says John, who is 58 and going on 14 years with very little pain.

“We have effective non-drug treatments for pain management, including acupuncture, mind-body methods, therapeutic yoga, and massage, all of which can ease patients’ suffering without making them addicted to drugs and opioids. These kinds of approaches can also help patients who have already become dependent on opioids,” says Wayne Jonas, MD. Dr. Jonas is a practicing family physician, an expert in integrative health care delivery, and a widely published scientific investigator.

Staying Active Eases Recovery and Pain

In 1985, John had the first of three micro-discectomies. This minimally invasive procedure removes the part of the disc that’s damaged and/or pressing on a nerve or the spinal cord. The procedure relieved John’s pain, but only temporarily.

John continued to play sports and work out. “My surgeon said staying active was the smartest thing I could have done,” he says. Being fit helped John recover faster from surgery and gave him some relief from his pain.

For 15 years, John worked in safety and security jobs in both the private and nonprofit sectors. Ready for a career change, he went to college, where he played baseball and basketball and earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in kinesiology.

Kinesiology is the study of how the body moves. Helping athletes perform better while preventing injuries and helping people improve their workouts are two ways to use kinesiology. John used his degree to become a personal trainer. “This gave me a connection to sports and helping people live better, healthier lives,” he says.

Shortly before graduating from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, John had his last surgery.

From Setback to Health and Happiness

Life was good for John for a few years. Then, in 2010, after losing his job and breaking up with his girlfriend. John hit rock bottom. “I was living in my friend’s basement, smoking pot and drinking alcohol. My back was so bad I could barely walk,” he says.

Eventually, John started looking for ways to feel better. He learned about meditation and mindfulness online. Both help relax the mind and body and help people deal with pain, stress and depression. Meditation and mindfulness also enhance overall health and well-being.

After doing an online meditation and mindfulness retreat in his friend’s basement, John began rebuilding his life. Later, he studied with Buddhist monks.

John practices a type of meditation called pragmatic Buddhism. “Meditation is observation of the mind as it is in the present moment, without judging or trying to change,” he says. “You transfer that to daily mindfulness practice, which you can use to focus on what you’re doing, thinking and saying 24 hours a day.”

Pragmatic Buddhism focuses on sitting comfortably, closing your eyes, and using your breath to stay present in the moment for a certain amount of time. Mindfulness is paying attention to your thoughts, feelings and actions as you go through your day. It’s especially helpful in stressful situations.

“I began practicing and had an awakening. I went from unable to walk to never having pain again. I’ve never touched pot or alcohol since then,” says John. An awakening is a state of inner peace and happiness and freedom from stress and struggle.

Today, John meditates for about 30 minutes in the morning and 60 minutes in the evening. In the morning he also does yoga, which relieves his stiffness and improves his flexibility. “My yoga is very ugly because I’m not very flexible. But the stretching is helpful. I do it in the privacy of my own home,” he says.

A vegetarian diet is part of John’s healthy lifestyle too. He adopted this after learning that inflammatory foods like sugar and soda make arthritis worse, while an anti-inflammatory plant-based diet relieves pain. John gets his protein from a plant-based protein powder, eats lots of fruits and vegetables, and avoids processed and sweet foods. “I have found a dramatic difference in my physical health and the pain in my knees and back,” he says.

Coaching Others to Better Health

John began working as a personal trainer again, including running boot camps for the Parks & Recreation Department in St. Louis, Missouri, and training clients at a local community center. His positive experiences with meditation and mindfulness led him to also offer life coaching and health coaching.

In 2017, John completed training to be a health coach with Wellcoaches, which trains, certifies and supports health and wellness coaches. During the program he learned about the mindset and behavior changes that are necessary for people to make and sustain healthy changes.

John hopes to become a certified health coach in 2018. In the meantime, he continues his work as a personal trainer and as a life coach teaching meditation and mindfulness. The man who could barely walk in his late teens is keeping others fit as he approaches his sixties.

Everyone Can Beat Chronic Pain

Since his last surgery in 2004, John has had very little pain. He doesn’t see any doctors regularly for it or take any medications. “I’m not against conventional medicine,” says John. “But, ultimately, it’s what we do for ourselves that’s going to have the most benefit. Everyone can do what I’ve done. It is within reach.”

“Most of our health comes from our behavior: our use of tobacco and alcohol, the food we eat, the movement and sleep we get and how we manage stress. Our capacity for changing behavior depends a lot on social factors such as income, education, racism and where we live,” says Dr. Jonas.

John plays competitive basketball three times a week, and ultimate Frisbee with his boot camp clients every Friday. He works out every day. “I’ve never been happier or more successful,” says John.

To learn more, see Wellcoaches Training: Healing Tool Series which is a collection of evidence-based resources to help providers and patients use integrative health approaches to improve health and well-being.