Returning to Fighting Form

Therapeutic Associates

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Major Andy "Papa" Poorman's return to fighting form.

As a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force, my back is exposed to stresses that are not common for most of the population and can lead to many long-term spinal injuries. My spine was injured to the point of needing surgery and physical therapy to get me flying again.

The initial injury probably occurred during decades of jumping off cliffs on a pair of skis, wakeboarding, waterskiing, and heavy weightlifting. The first instance I remember of an acute injury was in the winter of 2004 while deployed to Qatar. I was taking a week off from running and concentrating on weight lifting. With nothing to do but work out and fly, I quickly became bored in the gym and started trying exercises I hadn’t done in years. During my third rep of an exercise, I felt my back spasm and my body froze. I was locked in a slightly bent-over position and could barely walk.

A visit to the flight surgeon revealed a damaged disc. After a couple days of bed rest and a nice dosage of medication, my back relaxed enough that I was able to get back to running and flying within about seven days. I held off weight lifting for about two weeks.

After this, I would go through periods of stressing my back, needing to lay off for a while, and then getting back to strength. In the summer of 2006, the pain was returning more frequently and started to get more debilitating, with some numbness in my left leg. I started visiting a chiropractor to treat the symptoms, but that never seemed to fix the problem.

I finally went to a neurologist and had a MRI, which showed a bulged L3-4 disc and a hemorrhaged L4-5 disc. I elected for surgery to remove the hemorrhaged material. The surgery was a success, and I was up and walking the next day, albeit very slowly.

My neurosurgeon prescribed 4 weeks of physical therapy. I contacted a family friend who recommended Tony Rocklin at TAI in Downtown Portland. After my initial evaluation with Tony, I felt like it was going to be an uphill battle with all the stiffness, weakness, and post-surgical discomfort. The first few exercises were pretty simple and were designed to start my inner core strength rebuilding, with some light stretching to loosen up the muscles.

The first day I walked on the treadmill at less than 1 mph. My second appointment built on the first, and slowly I started working harder and harder. Soon I was dragging Tony around the gym by a bungee cord, pushing weights across the floor, and performing all kinds of balancing acts. With each visit, my walk on the treadmill got progressively faster and faster as my body recovered and strengthened. Soon I was up to light jogging for brief periods.

"Soon I was dragging Tony around the gym by a bungee cord, pushing weights across the floor, and performing all kinds of balancing acts."

Due to the intensity of my job, I elected for an additional 4 weeks of therapy to further strengthen and prepare me for the rigors of flying fighter jets. We started some light lifting, continued to strengthen the core, and started getting competitive about some of the non-traditional balancing exercises.

Since therapy I have continued to train with the exercises Tony taught me. My back feels great and I have been able to get back on the bicycle and running trail. When I get sore, I fall back on the stretches and exercises that I did in therapy and my soreness goes away.

My experience at TAI Downtown Portland was extremely positive. Tony’s knowledge and ability to assess and push my recovery was perfect. I was worked hard in PT, but never pushed too far or hurt. My lower back flexibility and strength is better than pre-surgery and is probably better than it has been in 15 years. I would recommend anyone who is having back problems to visit Tony.

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