Jillian Michaels Opens Up About Her Freak Accident, Spinal Injury and Grueling Year-Long Recovery
Celebrity trainer Jillian Michaels is known for her tough girl mentality, but after getting into a slip-and-fall accident in the spring of 2021, she had to find new types of strength.
"I wish it was some gangster motorcycle story where I told you I was racing motorcycles or Lindsey Vonn-ing downhill at 60 miles an hour, but it wasn't," Michaels tells PEOPLE exclusively from her Florida home. "It makes it that much more disturbing because in a way, it wasn't preventable."
Michaels, 49, was walking into the bathroom to get her wife DeShana Marie Minuto's attention when she slipped and fell, comparing the moment to slipping on a banana peel.
"I went running in and I smacked onto the edge of the bathtub with my back," the former Biggest Loser trainer explains.
Michaels kept telling herself and everyone else that she was fine, but after six weeks of lower back pain worsening, Michaels found herself unable to get out of the car to have dinner with her family one evening. They had turned around to go back home when she felt "a lightning bolt down my leg."
Allison Michael Orenstein Jillian Michaels with children Lukensia (13) and Phoenix (10) for People Magazine February 2023 Issue, photographed in Los Flores Creek Park Malibu Los Angeles, CA.
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Minuto decided it was time for Michaels to go to the emergency room.
In the hospital, Michaels recalls being so crippled by pain that she couldn't even move properly to get her body scanned. Doctors there verified they could see some sort of "nerve impingement" and sent her home with pain meds, but she continued to get worse.
"I couldn't sleep," the mom to Lukensia Michaels Rhoades, 13, and Phoenix Michaels Rhoades, 10, says. "The pain at night was so bad. I truly thought to myself, 'The only thing I think would be worse than this would be burns.' It was so crazy. I couldn't walk, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't stand. I was having to crawl on the ground. I'm like, 'My life is over.'"
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Allison Michael Orenstein
Michaels admits to using her celebrity name to pull some strings to get her into top doctors — one who brushed her off as having three herniated discs that would eventually get better. "He's like, 'Don't worry, it's not that bad,'" Michaels shares.
But that answer wasn't good enough for Michaels, as she enlisted spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill, who found that she had fractured her L3 vertebrae.
"[She had] two disc bulges together with some joint height loss which causes joint instability similar to a knee with damaged ligaments," Dr. McGill tells PEOPLE of Michaels. He advised her to do very little movement.
"What this guy basically has me doing is nothing," Michaels adds. "He literally is like, 'You're going to lay on your stomach. You're going to work on standing, you're going to walk as many steps as you can, you are going to lay back down and that's it.' That went on for a month."
Michaels realized that the stretching and rehabbing she had been trying to do on her own had actually caused damage.
"I was hanging off the bed to do traction on my lower spine, and he's like, 'You've made this so much worse,' " Michaels says. "It went from a four-millimeter herniation to a six-millimeter herniation. He's like, "And you destabilized the spine, which we need stabilized.'"
Michaels kept posting old content on social media to keep the injury from getting out, because she wasn't sure if she would get better.
"I'm posting old videos from 20 years ago on social media," Michaels says. "I'm not doing any press. I've disappeared off the grid. No one knows. Nobody has any idea as all of this is going on except my immediate circle. I'm like, 'I'm not telling this story until I know how this story ends.'"
Allison Michael Orenstein
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But with the help of Dr. McGill and the DB Method, an assisted squat machine that takes the pressure out of the back, five to six months later, Michaels' life finally took a turn for the better.
"I look at it as a tool that is so essential to help people build enough functional strength to maintain their fine hygiene and to move through their daily life and their daily activities safely," Michaels, who is now a spokesperson for the DB Method, says. "Getting people to function safely when they don't have the fundamental strength to do it in the first place is kind of a massive problem. This is an excellent tool."
"Everybody's going to be different," Michaels says. Most important is the biofeedback, listening to your body. Even now when I jump rope, if I jump rope for longer than 10 minutes, it bothers me the next day."
Michaels also convinced her doctors to try an epidural, and it helped to alleviate her pain.
After her year-long road to recovery, Michaels is happy to report she's feeling good and living her life close to how it was before her injury.
"I'm riding horses," Michaels shares with a smile. "I'm riding jet skis, I'm snowboarding. I'm just super, super careful."