CrossFit, Back Pain, and Severed Spine Injury.

Facebook has been brimming with support over the past two days for Kevin Ogar, a CrossFit athlete and coach who severed his spine this last weekend at the OC Throwdown, a fitness competition in Southern California.

The spinal injury was the result of a missed snatch, with the result of Kevin being paralyzed from the T-11 vertebra down. It was an injury as rare and anomalous as it was tragic, and Kevin not having health insurance has only exacerbated the catastrophic nature of his accident.

At this stage, the focus is rightly on Kevin and the support the community is able to provide. There has also been an immense amount of discussion on the incident and what it means for the sport of fitness, as well as the relation between risk, reward, and responsibility. The conversation has played out both in the gym (respectfully) as well as on the interwebs (not so respectfully).

My perspective during these discussions has been from the vantage of a 30-year-old married guy that does CrossFit relatively intensely. I competed for the first time this last December and plan on doing more in the future. So when I heard what had happened over the weekend, my first reaction was pure unadulterated fear. Fear for myself, fear for my wife, and fear for my friends and family. My wife and I CrossFit. My brother and brother-in-law CrossFit. A huge portion of my friends CrossFit. And we perform snatches with regularity. Was there a missed lift in my future with a life altering injury in tow? Or even worse, was my wife at risk of a similar accident?

That initial reaction of fear seems to be fairly prevalent… In addition to the incredible support I’ve seen across the net and pouring in to Kevin’s Fundly page, I’ve also seen a lot of ill-timed and ill-intentioned posts and replies. Comments questioning the safety of CrossFit, competition, olympic lifting… Comments like, “What did he expect?” or “What did YOU expect?”

With more time to consider my thoughts, I’ve realized that my initial reaction was a result of my own flawed ability to understand risk.

We fear the missed lift, not the drive to the gym.

Our brains have been wired to deal with sensational, unlikely events in ways that completely overestimate the odds of horrible but rare accidents and underestimate the risk of completely mundane and ordinary activities. Fear touches the primitive brain and causes it to make reflexive reactions before we even really understand what we’re seeing or reading. I read an article about how a professional athlete experienced paralysis after a missed snatch and my mind immediately jumps to my wife ditching a bar on her back, but I’m happy to kiss her goodbye as she drives to work… Completely ignoring the over 30,000 motor vehicle deaths a year in the US (car accidents also accounted for almost 40% of all spinal cord injuries from 2005 to 2012).

Fear strengthens memories, the horror and drama associated with unlikely events cause our brains to expect them to occur more often. I speed to the airport at 75 mph through traffic to make a flight and all I can think about is the plane crashing. I take the freeway to the gym 5 times a week and all the sudden my concern is whether or not a missed snatch attempt is going to end with me in the hospital. The fear skews our analysis of risk.

But of course, what does it matter? Why not just avoid all risky activity and remove any doubt?

We fear the missed lift, not the back pain.

Ironically enough, this morning an article popped up in my newsfeed from NPR discussing how exercise can help alleviate back pain. The article discusses the possibility that we are overprescribing painkillers, overprescribing injections, and overprescribing back surgery. The article goes on to talk about the “endless loop of pain,” the term used to describe patients experiencing acute back trouble due to persistent hypersensitivity of the nervous system. This would be like the full year I spent where my back would twinge every time I sneezed. I’d wake up in the morning and be hunched over for the first 15 minutes of my day and I was only 27. It started when I got too busy at work and stopped going to the gym. Because my back hurt, I didn’t workout. Or run. Or do anything active. In the meanwhile, my back got weaker and the pain just became chronic.

It wasn’t until I got back in the gym that I noticed my back started to feel better. I joined CrossFit and within a few months my back pain disappeared. Not “got better.” Disappeared.

Our brains are really good at underestimating a menace that builds up over time. The idea of dropping a bar on our back becomes much more frightening than the idea of living a sedentary life of chronic back pain. It’s difficult for our monkey brains to understand a risk that doesn’t produce immediate negative results.

And it’s bigger than chronic back pain. Heart disease killed almost 600,000 people in 2010. Diabetes was almost 70,000. A life of stagnation can result in a sub-par quality of life that ends prematurely. Be wary letting the microscopic risk of catastrophe limit you to a life of inactivity.

Respect the missed lift.

Perception of risk can also swing the other direction: Risky behavior can seem less risky when we feel we can control the outcome. It’s the same reason I distrust drivers who text at the wheel yet I’m perfectly comfortable doing it myself. In addition, the perception of risk can also decrease as safety measures increase. That is to say, if my form gets better and my body gets stronger, I may increase the level of risk in the form of volume or load. The brain prefers to maintain a specific level of risk, and if risk decreases in one area it likes to increase it in another. Just remember that not having gotten into a car accident for the past 20 years does not make you incapable of getting into one today.

The point of course is not to avoid increases in risk at the detriment of our development; but rather, to understand the real risks that exist and try our best to mitigate them. There’s not a lot we can do to avoid a freak accident, that’s why it’s called a “freak accident” and not “terrible thing you should have expected.” But there are actions we can take to mitigate the damage of a “freak accident.” In the case of fitness and the terrible mishap this last weekend, perhaps the lesson for the community is the importance of catastrophic health insurance. Or safety measures that haven’t yet been explored. I’m sure the webz discourse over the next few days will only get more polarizing and interesting and something will come up.

How to help…

I’ve never met Kevin and I can’t imagine the emotions he’s experiencing. I’ve spoken with a few athletes at CrossFit Max Effort who’ve known him over the years and I think Zach Forrest summed it up with, “Kevin is one of a handful of people I know that is capable of taking a terrible situation like this and making it something inspirational and good.” (I didn’t write it down at the time, so I may be paraphrasing).


Be a part of turning this into something inspirational and good and donate what you’re able to on Kevin’s Fundly page. It’s been only two days and at the time of this post the community has already surpassed the goal of $100,000. Give what you’re able, the CrossFit community has always had a reputation for overachieving, go live up to it.