The date is memorialized in an Instagram post: July 23, 2021, the day I relocated four, two-man ladder stands and put them up by myself, then bragged about how it was my cross-fit workout for the day. Two years later, I’m still not fully recovered from that ladder stand workout.
If you’re here for a dramatic disaster story or a thrilling rescue, you’ll be disappointed. A ladder stand did not fall on me, nor did I fall out of one. I didn’t step on a rattlesnake. I didn’t even know I injured myself that day. But, sure enough, I caused damage I am still regretting, and it had a major impact on my deer hunting and quality of life for a long time. I want to help you avoid the same mistake.
How Not To Hang a Ladder Stand
That summer, I was in middling physical shape for a 51-year-old. This was year two of the pandemic between the winter and fall 2021 surges of coronavirus, and my family had been eating out a lot less than normal. I’d been jogging a little and doing some light weight training that summer. When no one else could join me for a deer-stand workday, I figured I could do it alone. Setting up ladder stands is not that big a deal, I told myself, even with heavy-duty, two-man ladder stands.
I’d done it before, and you probably have too. Just position the ladder face-down with legs toward the tree, and push the legs into the dirt or roots so they don’t slip. Then, carefully lift the seat over your head and “walk it” hand-to-hand up the rungs of the ladder until it’s leaning against the tree. I’m giving you DIY instructions for something you should not DIY. In that lifting process, you are putting major torque and strain on your spine. If you start to lose control, and I did, you put serious pressure on your lumbar vertebrae – your lower back – as you strain to stay under the ladder.
I felt no pain while doing it. I didn’t “throw” my back out. I ended the day feeling great about how much I’d accomplished in preparation for deer season, and all by myself. But sure enough, the strain had damaged the cartilage lining one of the gel-filled discs that cushions the vertebrae in the spine. As the gel bulged out through the torn lining over coming days – known as a herniated disc – it began to press on my sciatic nerve.
A Deer Season Darkened by Pain
About a week after that workday with the ladder stands, I noticed a dull pain in my right gluteus that seemed to me like a strained muscle, so I backed off running for a couple days. Taking a couple days off had always fixed the usual mysterious aches of jogging, but this pain didn’t subside. It seemed worse when I was sitting.
A little further each day, the pain crept down my right thigh to the back of my knee. Eventually, the pain was like a cord extending from my lower back to my right ankle. Sitting was slow torture. Pressing a gas pedal with my right foot was particularly uncomfortable, so driving became a problem. I started to do a little research online, and sure enough lots of other people have experienced exactly what I was feeling, possibly including you. My symptoms matched “sciatica,” and an MRI later confirmed the blown-out disc.
I’ve learned my spine, like my hearing, is one of those things most of us abuse when we’re younger to our regret when we’re older. I wish I’d been more serious about protecting my spine when I was younger.
Throughout fall 2021, the pain worsened. To drive to my family’s hunting land, a four-hour trip, I would take an ibuprofen, run the seat heater on high, and then stop at least twice during the trip to walk and stretch. Bending caused a bolt of pain to shoot down the nerve, so just getting dressed and tying my shoes – let alone pulling on hunting boots – was a struggle. Climbing into those ladder stands was difficult, and sitting in them was uncomfortable. I’d stand every 15 minutes or so to take a break from the ache.
To get out of bed or off a couch, I couldn’t simply sit up and then stand. I had to roll sideways off the bed onto my hands and knees, and then stand – first making sure no one was looking, of course. Sitting in my office desk chair became painful, and I was forced to build an elevated platform for my computer and keyboard so I could stand and work. All these effects were dragging me down mentally, too.
Fighting Phantom Pain
Early on, I found that some lower-back stretches gave me relief, as did heat packs, so at first I hoped to deal with the problem myself. I’d done this before with other instances of lower back and neck pain. But the pain continued to worsen. If I made sudden movements like stumbling as I walked, or lying down too fast, I’d trigger a breath-taking spasm of pain so intense that for a moment I would seize up as if cramping. The strangest thing about sciatica is there’s nothing wrong with the parts of you that hurt. It’s phantom pain caused by the kink in the nerve pathway between your brain and your lower body.
I suspected that if I went to see my primary care physician, I’d be presented with two options: Medicate the pain with opioids and anti-convulsants, or see a neurologist to fix the problem with surgery. Instead, in December, I walked into a local physical therapy chain that a neighbor recommended. They confirmed my self-diagnosis quickly by asking me to try a few bends and movements. They could work with me for six weeks without a doctor’s prescription. In those six weeks, they taught me new exercises and stretches that helped. The improvement was very slow but noticeable over the six-week period. After that, I continued the new exercise routine on my own at home, and I was walking as much as I could each day.
In winter 2022, I grew discouraged with my progress. Improvement was very slow, and there were some days and weeks when the pain increased again. I went to see my physician, who referred me for an MRI, and then on to a neurologist. The imagery confirmed the bulging disc, though the neurologist said he’d seen worse. He could repair it with surgery, or I could continue physical therapy on my own and hope my body would heal itself. I was already significantly out-of-pocket for the MRI, which cost more than six weeks of physical therapy. After researching my out-of-pocket costs for surgery, I never called the neurologist back.
(And here’s the obligatory warning not to interpret my story as medical advice for you or anyone else. If you injured your back like I did, see your doctor. I have a good friend who had a much more painful case of sciatica than mine, and surgery gave him relief).
The Slow Road to Healing
It’s now two years since I set up those ladder stands. I’m very nearly back to normal. The neurologist told me that a minor herniation will heal if you avoid re-injuring it and do the right physical therapy, though slowly. That’s been my experience. The pain is gone most days, and when I feel it, it is barely noticeable. My flexibility has mostly returned. I can sit and drive without pain. I haven’t microwaved a heat pack in months when I used to do it daily. My travel kit no longer includes ibuprofen, velcro back braces, or roll-out yoga mats. I don’t run the car seat heater and air conditioner at the same time anymore. But this progress required daily dedication to my physical routine.
That routine includes a 1.5-mile walk at dawn each day, followed by 20 to 30 minutes of floor stretches. I walk at noon and again in the evening, trying to stay above 10,000 steps every day. I stretch again before bedtime. Four times a week, I go to a public gym and do weight-training exercises recommended by my physical therapist for long-term strengthening of my back, hips, abdomen and all muscles that support the lower spine and neck. I got a few moves from the guys at Fit To Hunt to diversify my workout. I’ve learned that as I lose weight, the pain declines, and when I gain weight, it creeps back. So, I’m trying to stay trim by eating right. I don’t always succeed.
I now suspect that this self-healing routine won’t ever end – not if I want to keep the pain managed and my flexibility normal. I’m 53 now, and my body is not going to regenerate its youthful durability. It’s only getting older and more worn down, the parts less able to withstand shocks and stress. My spine won’t ever be 18 years old again, and that herniated disc will always need special protection. But then these exercises I do should keep me mobile and pain-free into advanced age even if I hadn’t blown out a disc.
I’ve learned my spine, like my hearing, is one of those things most of us abuse when we’re younger to our regret when we’re older. I wish I’d been more serious about protecting my spine when I was younger. I could have focused on strengthening it. I could have avoided setting up those stands alone or lifting other heavy or awkward objects the wrong way.
It might not be too late for you. Take care of your back and your body. Strengthen it to prevent injury, and don’t do stupid stunts like raising ladder stands over your head by yourself.
You can find videos that show various ways to raise a ladder stand by yourself using ropes, pulleys and other tricks. Some of that might work, but after my experience, I think the best method is the one you’ll see in the video below by Indiana DNR: Bring at least two friends to help you.