The Moment That Changed the Career of Sports Medicine Expert Dr. Sean Wheeler

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Sports medicine and back pain expert Dr. Sean Wheeler has long been obsessed with pain. How pain, and its absence, affects behavior, competitiveness, and quality of life.

Drawing upon more than a decade of specialized training, patient treatment and medical experience, Dr. Wheeler came to a breakthrough realization of how to effectively treat patients with chronic low back pain.

This realization is the topic of his soon-to-be published book UPRISE.

In his own words from UPRISE, Dr. Wheeler describes his moment of realization:

A year or two after finishing my pain management fellowship and while practicing sports medicine, I was slated to give a lecture to a large group of physical therapists one weekend.

In preparation for this lecture, I was poring over research papers when I came across an article that caught my eye. It wasn’t the main point of the article that caught my attention; it was an aside that piqued my interest—how most people develop a lack of blood flow to the lumbar spinal discs in the vertebrae by age 35.

This fact gave me pause. It stuck with me, and for the rest of the week I found myself returning to that article. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It kept me up at night. One thing in particular was bothering me: why was there no blood flow to the discs? There had to be a reason the disc was set up this way. After all, there’s no part of the human body that is supposed to move that doesn’t get great blood flow.

I was mulling this over in the car on my way home from the office one night. It was maybe nine o’clock in the evening, and after a long day at work I was fatigued. Maybe it was something about being fatigued and having trouble seeing the road—the contrast between the headlights and the darkness was hard on my eyes—that put me in a trance and allowed me to think more clearly, but something clicked.

It was suddenly so clear. The discs. The reason discs don’t get ample blood flow is because they aren’t supposed to move.

The problem isn’t that they move too much in some people—it is that they move at all. The lack of blood flow to the discs indicates they are supposed to remain stable. That is what separates those with discs that break down and those with discs that don’t—the former are unstable because the discs are moving.

Moving discs also mean that the discs are heating up. Anything that moves heats up. The parts of your body that move also have blood flow to take that heat away. If there is no blood flow, you can’t take the heat away, and the disc breaks down.

This was my Aha! moment—almost a spiritual realization—that forever changed my thinking about back pain.

And how to effectively treat it.