On July 16, I went for a run and 10 minutes in, I felt searing pain down my left leg, like a freight train with its intensity. I limped my way to my room, steps getting smaller until they were a few inches apart, and couldn’t stand anymore because the pain was all consuming. I was immediately scheduled to see an orthopedic surgeon who assessed my symptoms, X-rays, and tests. The doctor just needed an MRI to be 100% certain of the diagnosis.
Based on the pain, I had prepared for something serious. The mental prep paid off, because the first thing the MRI technician repeated as I was coming out, on the table with headphones still on, was that I needed an operation. What? I made him repeat it, not because I was surprised, but because I couldn’t focus.
At this point I couldn’t stand for more than 30 seconds without hyperventilating. All of a sudden it’d feel like the atmosphere disappeared and high tide was coming in fast. The nerve pain felt like a live wire and I was registering information as if I were 100 miles away by semaphore. I was trying to go to my “happy place”, the strategy you plan for to push at the end of a race and disassociate with pain, time, and space. I was wildly unsuccessful. Lying down was the only position that eased the pain to a comprehensible rumble.
The MRI scans confirmed what all signs were pointing to: an L5/S1 disc herniation to the left, severely compressing my nerve, causing what can only be described as a ridiculous amount of pain down my left hip, leg, loss of mobility and sensation, and neuropathy in my foot.
I was prescribed steroidal, arthritic, and nerve pain medication for the next month. My prognosis was to immediately stop current physical activity, start physical therapy, and redesign my life for recovery for the next six months. Surgery was the last resort if symptoms continued to progress for a year. Based on my situation, it was smarter to try conservative treatment first, with a goal to recover and forgo surgery.
The Bad: The first few days I was bedridden. Basic necessities like using the toilet, showering, and eating became accomplishments of the day. I had to get creative putting on underwear (I gave up on socks). The pain was so taxing that I didn’t have the capacity to care about my appearance, elaborate, or cry. I was counting the seconds until I could lie down. The doctor looked at my MRI scans and tried to piece together why my back looked 1-2 decades older than the rest of me. I had a bulging L4/5 disc above my herniated L5/S1 too.
And the Good: I didn’t have cauda equina syndrome, which is a disc herniation in the middle and a surgical emergency because it causes incontinence and potential paralysis of the legs. Not to mention, the pain was so intense that I actually couldn’t dread the future or sift through the past for moments to regret. Those are higher-level thinking skills. I was 100% present, trying to figure out how to put on pants without bending, or brush my teeth lying down. Pain demands that of you and I obliged. Most importantly, in this crazy situation, I found friendship, support, and peace.
You don’t herniate your disc running. You herniate your disc with repeated wear and tear, causing weakness in the annulus fibrosis (tough outer layer of your disc) until the nucleus pulposus (soft jelly part) tears through. This part could happen with little to no symptoms. But, if the herniation becomes severe enough, it can compress a nerve, or your spinal canal, depending on location, and radically inflame everything in its path. I’ll elaborate more later.
There are several factors that contribute to the speed of recovery. Those out of my control included injury severity, physical environment, and genetics. I herniated my disc. I was in Vietnam. And, the curve of my spine, the arch in my feet, and my natural shock absorbing anatomy are what my momma gave me. Yet, my age (so ironically, timing), current state-of-health, access to medical treatment, and emotional support from family and friends gave me a fighting chance. I trusted my doctors and physical therapists. So, I have a decent hand.
Now, in the fourth week of recovery, fifteen physical therapy sessions down, and roughly the same amount of good days and setbacks, I’m comfortable lying down in public (somewhat of a social taboo but pain makes you not care) and capable of standing at the sink to brush my teeth. I’ve spine-proofed my life, purchased orthotics to place in my shock-absorbing shoes, and swum a cumulative 20km for exercise (I’m a swimmer). The pain dial’s been turned down but it’s always present in the background, and the numbness and tingling haven’t improved yet. But, my mobility’s improved, which means I can walk, and psychologically it’s the best I’ve been in a couple years. A good support network, a sense of purpose, and curiosity will do that.
To my family, friends, doctors and physical therapists, (and a handful of strangers) I owe you my health. Without you I could not have broken the vicious cycle of independence to a fault, or asked for help, flown thirty-six hours around the world with a herniated disc so I could relocate and start the next chapter of my life—let alone make it to work and purchased more cellular data. I’ve found solace and refuge in these people. More on this later.
Bulging discs and herniations are incredibly common especially as we age. Take care of your physical and mental health, and spine. You don’t get another spinal cord in this lifetime. And coming from a twenty-something that looks young and healthy, but is doing geriatric stretches– you never know what others are going through, so be kind.
May sound trite, but that’s definitely something.