Ryan Drozd

Finding New Strength After a Decade of Dead Ends

Ryan Drozd compares living with chronic pain to having rocks in your shoes.

“You want to take the shoes [off] and get the rocks out, but you can’t,” he describes. “For some people, the rocks are sharp, and for some, the rocks are dull, but either way, there’s no way around it: you’re constantly thinking about [the pain].”

Ryan speaks from experience. In 2013, despite an active childhood playing sports, he suffered a twisting injury while doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu—a self-defense martial art that involves grappling, ground fighting, and submission holds.

With every inhale following the injury, Ryan experienced severe pain on the right side of his front and back rib cage. X-rays were inconclusive; there were no fractures or breaks. Ryan was prescribed powerful painkillers and sent home. When the pain medications wore off, the pain returned with each and every breath.

For the next year, Ryan searched for answers, making appointment after appointment with physical therapists, orthopedic doctors, and specialists. No one could pinpoint the cause.

“I felt like I was being passed from doctor to doctor, and no one could give me any answers that made sense,” says Ryan. The pain was acute; it was sharp, then faded quickly. “I kept thinking, it’ll go away on its own, like all the other injuries I’ve had over the years,” he shares. “But after a year [went by], I realized: this isn’t getting better; it’s getting worse.”

Instead of fading, the sharp pain became persistent. Ryan now experiences chronic pain: a dull ache that becomes sharp during cold and damp weather. The incessant sensation of discomfort saps his energy and his will to do anything physical.

“At least with acute pain, I knew there was an end in sight,” says Ryan.

Ten years after his jiu-jitsu injury, Ryan, now 34, still doesn’t have a definitive diagnosis. He experiences chronic upper and middle back and chest pain where his ribs attach to his sternum.

“I’ve seen dozens of doctors and specialists. They all say [the same thing]: ‘Your X-rays and CAT scans are clean. Your bones look good. We don’t really know what to do. So, we’re gonna throw some muscle relaxers at you.’” Ryan pauses, then lets out a deep breath. “I’m like, OK, well, that doesn’t help me at all.”


“I went from being an avid athlete to having little will or desire to do most physical activities,” Ryan says. For years, he dealt with undiagnosed anxiety. With the onset of his chronic pain, the anxiety slowly morphed into depression.

“I had no interest in doing things I loved anymore. I call [that time] my ‘pet rock days’ [because] I was literally like a pet rock,” Ryan recalls. “I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even think straight.”

Ryan has tried almost 10 medications for depression, but none of them seemed to work and almost all resulted in negative side effects. In 2020, he tried neurofeedback therapy, a non-invasive treatment that encourages the brain to develop healthier patterns of activity.

“I started getting more motivated, I felt better overall, I could think again—I could even do crossword puzzles!” Ryan says. Despite his success with the treatments (about 45 in total), it wasn’t exactly ideal. He had to drive 45 minutes each way and felt extreme fatigue after each session. Most days, Ryan had to find someone, typically his parents, to drive him home. On top of that, insurance only covered a certain number of visits.


Ryan has tried a plethora of treatments and therapies over the years, including acupuncture, physical therapy, and chiropractic adjustments.

He also tried Bowenwork or Bowen therapy, which involves gently stretching the fascia; Reiki, an energy healing technique that uses gentle touch to promote relaxation and reduce stress and anxiety; osteopathic manipulations, the use of manual pressure to treat musculoskeletal disorders; and myofascial release therapy, which uses massage to target trigger points in the muscle.

Meditation, walking, heat therapy, and supplements like Vitamin D3 have been most helpful. He believes that good sleep, proper nutrition, spirituality, and a strong core network of friends are critical to living with chronic pain.

“Many studies have proven that people who have tight social connections have a much lower mortality rate,” Ryan says. “Areas like Okinawa, Japan, have one of the highest life expectancies in the world. They have a very good sense of social norms and social responsibility [because] it’s part of their culture and day-to-day [lifestyle]. Here in the United States, many people go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, and call it a night. Once I started setting a schedule to see friends once or twice a week, I noticed a huge difference.”

Ryan, who lives in Connecticut, couldn’t work for two years and was forced to file for disability. He now works from home as an administrator for a stainless steel cabinet manufacturer, but he makes the 30-minute drive to the office once a week.

“It’s hard on my body if I have to go in more than once weekly, and I definitely wouldn’t be able to manage it without a strict routine,” he says.

So he has a plan to minimize his pain. He goes to bed early, packs his breakfast and lunch the night before, and has tea or coffee ready to go when he wakes up in the morning.

Ryan also started participating in meet-up groups and going for walks and short hikes, and he began leading a chronic pain support group for the U.S. Pain Foundation.


“Recently, while leading a group through the U.S. Pain Foundation, I shared my journey with chronic pain. Someone [in the group] said they thought my condition sounded a lot like slipping rib syndrome,” Ryan says. This condition causes the lower ribs to shift away from their usual position. It was something Ryan had never heard of.

“It’s very rare and only occurs in a small percentage of people,” he says. “It can also lead to chronic pain and is nearly impossible to diagnose because it doesn’t show up on X-rays or CT scans.”

After 10 years of seeing every type of doctor, therapist, and specialist he could find, Ryan got his first lead on a potential diagnosis because he “forced himself to get out and meet other people suffering from chronic pain,” he says. He’s scheduled for an upcoming procedure with a specialist who has experience with chest trauma and slipping rib syndrome, but as promising as it sounds, Ryan says he’s keeping his hopes at bay.

“Hope is great—however, there is a fine line between being hopeful and setting unrealistic expectations for doctor visits,” Ryan says. After managing chronic pain for more than a decade, Ryan has advice for anyone who may be suffering:

“Don’t expect a magic bullet treatment that will address every aspect of your pain experience. Chronic physical pain is compounded with comorbidities like depression, poor nutrition, lack of mobility, and little to no physical exercise due to pain. I would suggest creating a care team of practitioners you trust who may be able to guide you to other treatment avenues. Do not expect one doctor to have all (or any!) of the answers, because that is a guaranteed way to feel let down.”

Aside from a trusted care team, Ryan recommends finding groups that offer activities such as walking or light hiking. Last year during a meetup group get-together, Ryan met someone his age who lived with a painful gastrointestinal condition. The two men shared their stories outside in the warmth of the sun. Despite the differences in their conditions, it was the closest Ryan had found to someone in a similar boat. The connection and comfort each man gained from knowing they were not alone echoes Ryan’s advice of finding a supportive community.

“No matter what you have, no matter what illness, if there’s pain involved, you normally have a lot in common [with other people living with chronic pain],” Ryan says.

—Mark Odlum