Two Herniated Discs and My Road to Recovery
(Last Updated On: August 12, 2013)
I’ve had back pain since I was 12 years old. It was low back pain, and the kind that just never went away. I remember walking down the hallway at my school, crying because I was in so much pain, and my friends carrying my backpack (piled full of books) because I could not. For years, the back pain would come and “go”. I say “go” because it never went away. It was always there. It was just a matter of whether the pain was incapacitating or not.
So, when my back flared up in September, 2011, it didn’t phase me too much. But, a few months later, when the pain had not yet subsided and in fact had gotten worse, I knew I had a problem. A real problem.
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stand still for more than a minute. I couldn’t sit on the couch, and I even had trouble sitting in a chair. Yet, I could walk just fine. And I could ski – in fact, skiing usually seemed to make it feel better. So, it wasn’t incapacitating, was it? But, I was still miserable. The hours I spent awake at night and the crabbiness I displayed afterward were proof of this.
But it wasn’t until May, 2012 that I actually decided to take extra measures. I finally splurged for the MRI which showed that I had two herniated discs between S1 and L5, and L5 and L4. Double doozy.
Now, just over a year later, I have recovered from my injury. No, the pain has not gone away. It never does. But, the pain has been considerably minimized. I still feel that burning nerve pain from time to time. But, I now know how to manage it so the pain lasts a matter of hours instead of days, or months. I can now sleep a full night’s sleep, uninterrupted with pain.
Over the course of the last few months, I have had a number of people contact me about my recovery. All people with herniated discs themselves, they had questions for me. How did I do it? Why didn’t I have surgery? How did I REALLY feel?
And there are more people like these. Herniated discs are common. But, man, they sure are painful. When you’re in this kind of pain, all you want to do is make it stop. But, the pain from a herniated disc does not stop overnight. And people suffering from this kind of pain often have this desire to seek out others to help provide some hope of recovery. That is why I am writing this blog post.
I was already in the care of an excelled physical therapist when I was officially diagnosed with the herniated discs. While she had done a great job on getting me jump started on the road to recovery, there was only so much she could do. I knew I had to begin taking matters into my own hands.
So, here’s my advice to those suffering from similar pain:
1) Listen to your body. Let pain be your guide. The doctor told me to stop skiing. But, skiing was one of the few things that made me feel better. People kept telling me to rest, but all that “resting” did was make it feel worse. Staying active is not only a possibility, but a probability. However, be wise with your activities. For example, riding a bike seemed to irritate my back, so I stopped (but I picked it back up once my pain significantly subsided). Hiking and skiing helped my back, so I kept doing them.
2) Believe in the power of ice and massage. I’m an advocate for chiropractic, and I have been for many years. But, much like my physical therapist, my chiropractor could only do so much for me. My back was clearly out of whack, and the muscles in my back were spasming and tight. After going to a massage therapist a few times, my muscles began to calm down, allowing for my back to settle into a more proper position. Also, I ice my back regularly, especially when that burning nerve pain really begins to flare up. It’s amazing how an “ice massage” can make that nerve pain go away.
3) Study your x-rays and MRI, and the way your body moves. My pelvis was crooked, probably due to pain and probably due to too many knee injuries and surgeries where one leg was favored over the other. This rotation was clearly causing stress on my lower back and “pinching” where the herniated discs exist. My goal became to fix the rotated pelvis. In doing this, my pain would be alleviated.
4) Get Pete Egosque’s book and read it – The Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion. Once I put many of his theories to the test, I found he was exactly right. No, this guy doesn’t have a doctorate or anything for back pain or body alignment. But, he’s studied the body and experimented with it. Frankly, most of it is common sense when you get right down to it, although he is sometimes in dispute with doctors and physical therapists. He helps you diagnose your problems, helps you develop a program for recovery, and provides suggested exercises based on your specific condition.
5) Dedicate the time. Recovery is NOT going to happen overnight. It takes time and patience. However, the more time you can put into your recovery, the better the results you will see. Beginning in June, 2011, I put somewhere between 1 and 3 hrs a day into my recovery for the first few months. At first, this involved chiropractic, physical therapy, and massage. Later, I whittled it down to a program I made for myself that lasted somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour a day- more if I’m in more pain. People may say, “I don’t have time for that.” Well, ask yourself, “Do you have time for your pain?” The sleep that I have lost to spend in hours toward my recovery has been way less than the sleep that I have lost in months prior due to my pain.
6) Make a program for yourself and stick to it- every day! One of the first things I do when I wake up is a series of back stretches and exercises. It only takes 15 to 20 minutes, and it is well worth it as it helps set me up for a nearly pain free day (I say nearly because the pain of a herniated disc never goes away, but the pain can be so low-grade that it is barely noticeable). At night, before I go to bed, I go through a similar series of stretches and exercises that last 30 to 45 minutes. Where did I get these? I pulled some from yoga, others from physical therapy, and yet some more from Egoscue. For yoga, I basically went through a deck of yoga cards (each with a different pose) and picked out ones that “lengthened” or “mobilized” the spine. Again, when deciding on which exercises/stretches to do, I listed to my body. Your back will tell you what it needs.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite stretches and exercises. Keep in mind, what works for me may not work for you. But, some of them might help!
Yoga Influence (Note- about half of these overlap with Physical Therapy & Egosue recommendations):
Assisted Standing Forward Bend
Reclining Big Toe Pose
Reclining Spinal Twist
Cat and Dog Stretch
Seated Forward Bend
Physical Therapy Influence
Through the Hole Stretch
Reclining Leg Stretch
Miscellaneous Lumbar Stabilization Exercises
Flexion Abdominals Position – Same as one shown here, except feet against a wall, knees at 90-degrees. Also, I do another one without a pillow and a strap taught around my legs just above my knees.
The low-down is this: If you have pain from herniated discs, the pain CAN go away. But, it takes time and energy. You need to dedicate regular time to the health of your back- more time up front than later. You need to be proactive about how to care and manage your back. And how you do this isn’t going to come from just one source. Research and experiment for yourself. And let your body and pain be your guide. And remember, there is hope!
Brittany Walker Konsella
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14 thoughts on “Two Herniated Discs and My Road to Recovery”
First of all, I’m really glad that you feel better and you genuinely want your readers to feel better too. I can’t however sit back and let you encourage people to take your advice whole-heartedly. Herniated discs don’t fix themselves. That’s an unfortunate fact of life. If you have severe pain from a herniated disc, sure you can minimize the pain with exercise and strength conditioning, but you can’t fix/cure the problem with exercise. You need surgery. Please don’t encourage people to put up with 20+ years of pain when they could have a simple outpatient surgery to fix the disc. The fact of the matter is, if you’re healthy, active and simply have a herniated disc, doctors (good doctors that know the latest techniques) can go in, relieve the pressure (which causes the nerve pain), and fix the herniation. It’s been happening for over a decade, in fact the technology has advanced to the point where they are utilizing lasers to eliminate the pressure and repair the wall of the disc, the incision is tiny, and the recovery is less than a week. Unfortunately, if you have degenerative disc disease, or other complications, that particular remedy won’t work. But young, healthy people should not be encouraged to live with pain (even if it’s minimized) when there are better alternatives with a healthier lifestyle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a knife-happy surgeon that just can’t wait to fuse vertebrae together and make patients go through three months of recovery (not to mention the countless hours of PT after recovery). I’m a person that has been hurt, done research, and had the problem fixed by a qualified surgeon. The thought of someone taking your advice and living a life of pain makes me sad. That’s why I was compelled to write this. If you have a herniated disc, there are solutions, don’t give up and settle for a life of pain. Life is too good to settle for pain every single day, especially when there is a solution to it. I hope for your reader’s sake, you don’t block this comment. I know it doesn’t put you in the best light, but they need to hear this, especially if they are going to take your advice. You are not a doctor, and obviously aren’t aware of the latest options for disc repair, let your readers have the best chance at living a pain free life as they can have. I’m sure your advice will be great to keep their back healthy once they’ve fixed the problem.
“I Hope”- We will always publish comments so long as they aren’t a personal attack or spam. We’re glad that your back surgery went well. I know a number of people who have had great success with surgery. Unfortunately, I also know people who have had horrible luck with back surgery- ending up in more pain than they had in the beginning. This is why many people (including surgeons) will attempt PT, stretching, and strengthening before recommending surgery as a last resort. The key, of course, is to do what’s best for you and your body.
Hi – a year and a half later, what is the latest with your herniated discs? Did you stick with the non-surgical route and have they fully reabsorbed or do you still have ongoing pain? I was scheduled to have surgery on Monday, but had to cancel for insurance snafus…now I’m reconsidering the whole thing and trying to convince my wife (and myself) that I should go skiing tomorrow to test out the disc to see if I could live with it for another 4-6 months and give it more time to absorb on its own. Life of a skier…
Also for the first poster, I thought I would point out that the research contradicts their point that it can’t heal on its own. The research that I’ve seen shows that the majority of herniated discs can heal perfectly fine on their own with a combination of rest, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory, steroid shots, etc. While the body can reabsorb the disc material, it doesn’t always do what it is supposed to at the pace we want, and sometimes the surgery is the best option if the nerve compression is severe.
I go back and forth now on a hourly basis whether or not to stick it a few more months or just do the surgery. It’s not a life or death situation and the pain isn’t excruciating, but it certainly continues to interfere with my daily life and doesn’t allow me to do everything I want (or I have to pay a steep price the next few days).
Hi there “indecisive” 🙂 I have not had an MRI to detect whether the discs have reabsorbed. BUT, I can tell you, my back pain continues to decrease and my condition continues to improve. I have no problem riding a bike for up to 7 or 8 hours. Skiing doesn’t hurt at all unless I crash hard or do something really whacky to mess it up – which probably would have hurt it in the first place. I still stretch every morning and evening. But, my back pain is minimal. It hurts sometimes standing still and, rarely, sleeping.
I am no doctor, but unless you are having nerve degeneration and leg atrophy, it might not be a bad idea to true non-surgical alternatives for awhile. But, you have to be diligent…. like every day. You have to be proactive in finding things that work for you too, which might require the assistance of more than one person. If you are diligent, proactive, and patient, you might find that surgery is not necessary.
Oh, and save the steroid injections into the back for a last resort if you can…. Yes, it does help. But, those injections damaged a couple of ligaments around my L5 and that has increased some instabilities in that area of my back, which contributes to my remaining back problems. Those instabilities might not exist if I did not have the ESI done.
Hi Brittany – Glad to hear you seen real improvement. I read a research report that showed after 3 years the people in their sample pool that had the surgery and those that didn’t ended up having the same levels of pain/no-pain at the end. Of course there is a bit of self-selection in there as people that have very minor pain to begin with never have the surgery, while others have very serious pain and need the surgery. As long as I feel I can find some way to enjoy life and do the outdoor activities I want to during this span, I will continue to delay the surgery….if it starts to dramatically interfere with my life AGAIN (i.e., I was laid up on the couch for an entire week during my summer vacation) I’ll opt in for the surgery.
To test this theory out (which by the way my wife hates) I took the family skiing yesterday. I took it pretty easy given everything (and the conditions were horrible) but the back felt pretty good at the end of the day. The 2-hour drive was actually the most uncomfortable. We’ll see how the next few days go as I’m back in the office now and that is when the pain tends to set in. I do about a half hour of various stretching and core exercises every morning – and have for the last 6-7 months, and then I try to get a good walk in during lunch. I’ve been going to physical therapy for about 8 weeks now as well. The exercise always seems to help for an hour or two but then everything starts to tighten back up, so maybe I’ll have to commit to a bit more in the evening (although that’s when my liquid healing kicks in). I do have sciatica down the right leg which causes my muscles to tighten up into a rock which just means more pain. The PT tests me every few sessions for leg strength and resistance but I haven’t asked her if there were any signs of atrophy. Since she hasn’t said anything about it so I’ve just assumed I passed her test. No problems with powering through my turns yesterday.
I had two steroid injections already, but they didn’t work for me at all. Doctor said that was the case in about 50% of patients he treats, especially when the nerve is so inflamed. No lasting problems on my end though, just annoyed I had to get them with no relief for my pain.
Thanks for the post. It’s always nice to read some positive recovery stories, instead of everything on the forums being just about what went horribly wrong!
PS – some links in your original post are no longer active.
Well, I hope that you are able to heal. You mention that your back tightens up after physical activity – don’t forget to stretch! That is the main thing that saves me now. I spend about 30 minutes stretching every night before bed, 15 to 20 in the morning! It REALLY HELPS!
Get a personal trainer who does Olympic lifting. I started a program doing kettlebell deadlifts at 25lbs three months ago and now am doing 175lbs, as well as weighted pull ups on rings with 70lbs on me. I stretch 7 minutes, twice a day. The starting point was that I could not walk because of a herniated disc confirmed by mri. Dr said I was too old to recover (51) and would need surgery. I can now walk for three hours a day, no problem, and hope to do more fun things soon. Deadlifts done right are the best for some herniations. Also look up “reverse hypers”–invented for herniations by a power lifter. I do them on a butcher block at home—worked up from 0 to 50 lbs of weight on the legs (total). Worked wonders.
I´ve seen very good results on my patients treated with osteopathic techniques. If you are not very found of this type of medicine, there is a great work that gives all the resources to treat herniated disc with Osteopathy and the results after 25 years of treating it. The name of the work is ‘Osteopathic treatment of low back pain and sciatica caused by disc prolapse’ and you can find it in here: http://medoslibrosalud.com/en/osteopathy/114-osteopathic-treatment-of-the-low-back-pain-and-sciatica-caused-by-disc-prolapse.html.
I agree that we should learn to listen to our bodies. In 1986, I had a herniated disc at L4-L5. This was considered a “large” protrusion. I was essentially crippled for 6-8 months. I have always been a free-heel skier, backpack high routes, and a distance runner. I was numb from my waste down to the balls of my feet. I felt as if my feet were the size of basketballs. I was so damned scared and frightened. I literally could not walk. The orthopedic specialist suggested I do not rush into surgery. I went the route of four weeks of PT with most of my work involving the McKenzie exercises and stretches. It took a year and I got better! I was left with some residual nerve sensations in the balls of both feet, but eventually went back to running, big mountain backcountry tele-skiing, and backpacking with 35 – 40 pound packs.
This past October (2015) I herniated L5S1 while moving some large rounds of wood. I have had slight recurring back issues off and on since 1986, but I always resolved these with some simple stretches and decompression exercises. This time, I had a pain that dropped me to my knees in tears and fear. I did not go to any doctors, as I felt this would go away. I had a bit of slight issue with my bladder, and some serious numbing and tingling down my right side, calf, and outside of right foot. I could barely walk. I did extension exercises, used ice and got a prescription of 500 mg Naproxen that I took 4 times per day. After a month, the nerves settled down and I was able to walk about two miles. In December, I finally went to see my MD and we had an xray taken of my lumbar region. You could clearly see that my L4-L5-S1 complex was screwed up. This lead to an MRI that took another month to wait for. In the meantime, I increased my daily walking to 2-3 miles and cross-country skied twice per week. I could tele-turn to the right, but their was no way I could pressure my right foot and make a left-turn arc.
The 3-Tesla MRI was done in Medford, OR and the results devastated me! If anyone would like to see the MRI’s send me an email at email@example.com and I will send you two views. You will wonder how any signal can get out of my back. The blown out L5S1 cuts off nearly 80% of my spinal nerve route! The next step was to see a neurosurgeon, This took another month (late February, 2016.) He felt that I really needed to have the protrusion and other material removed from around the spinal nerve bundle. He offered no other options. The truth is that I was getting better and it had been 14 weeks since the injury. My bladder symptoms had abated, and I mostly had
I went home and thought about surgery for a week and decided I would put a bit more effort into my own recovery. I picked up my walking and hiking to 4-6 miles four times per week. I do stretches and extensions twice a day. My nerves burn and tingle, and my feet go numb, but I am getting better without surgery. I tried a bit of AT skiing on Mount McLoughlin this past weekend and did a pretty good job at faking technique. I don’t know what the future will bring. What I do know is that when I blew out L4L5 in 1986, I got 30 more years of a good life before this latest S1 issue. In fact, the recent MRI shows a bulge at L4L5, but the protrusion and massive herniation from 1986 is completely gone. It was absorbed. Amazing!
I am going to keep living with my pain and nerve issues and give this current problem three more months. As long as I keep gaining slowly, I am going to forego surgery. Some days are really bad, but when I think back to early October, I have made great progress.
I wanted to share this as there is plenty of research now that suggests if one can tolerate a bit of pain and weakness, there is excellent hope for those of us with massive disc herniations. Surgery is not necessarily the best option. As always, everyone’s mileage will vary, but take the time to do some research.
Thanks for letting me share this. Maybe my long comment will help others.
An update on my case one year later. I ended up having the surgery at the end of April 2015. If I would have been seeing ANY type of progress I wouldn’t have done the surger, but I was getting weaker and feeling more pain, numbness on a daily basis. I would have to sit down after walking for 5-10 minutes and it ruined my 2014-15 ski season and our spring break — which was the last straw for me. Even though the science shows that eventually your body will absorb the intrusion, I unfortunately wasn’t one of the lucky ones where that happens early on. I didn’t want to live like that for the next 6-8 years and run the risk of permanent nerve damage.
So nearly a year later I’m pretty happy with my decision. They fused my L5-S1 and replaced my disc with an artificial sponge. The recovery has been a series of highs and lows. First couple weeks were really tough, as expected after major surgery, but I made good progress every day. By 3 weeks I was out walking a 2-3 miles a day. Months 2-3 were really promising and I was really committed to doing the PT and walking 5-7 miles every day. I thought I’d be back in full health by month 6 (Tiger Woods thought the same thing). Then reality set in when I went back to work full time. Progress and activity slowed down to a halt, and I had a few set backs of more pain then normal. Between months 4-8 I really questioned whether the surgery worked and if I’d be back out on the mountain any time this year. But once ski season started coming around and we booked a few trips I pushed myself to be more active during the week and go out there on the mountain as many days as I could. The first few days were a real struggle. Leg strength was totally gone and every jiggle and bump seem to radiate up my spine. I couldn’t make it a quarter way down a green without stopping and I probably looked horrible trying to keep my body clinched. I was with my 6 yr old so it wasn’t a big deal and I was happy just being out there with her, but I knew I needed to ease myself back into skiing shape. By Day 6 or 7 I was pushing more, doing a few harder runs on my own but taking my time, soaking in the tub at night to keep any swelling down, stretching, etc. Now by day 20 I’m able to charge relatively hard, chase the powder stashes, and haven’t had any type of real back pain to mention. As I type this sitting down in my office, I can still feel the little knot in my lower back and buttocks, but it’s nothing compared to this time last year and it is no longer holding me back. The doc said that the 2 years of nerve compression, may require up to 2 years of non-compression for the body to go back to “normal”. Not sure I remember “normal”, but I’m in better shape then I was a year go so for me it was worth the pain of getting to this point. I sincerely hope for everyone that their body can resolve it naturally through PT, exercise, stretching! Best of luck!
Congrats four your recovery Brittany!
I think your tips are very usefull for all the person who are suffering from back pain. However, I recommend you a good book to read that can give you all the resources to treat herniated disc with Osteopathy and the results after 25 years of treating it. It is called ‘Osteopathic treatment of low back pain and sciatica caused by disc prolapse’ written by François Ricard. You can find it in here
Hi all, I agree with Brittany- I am not a skier, but an avid horseback rider. I herniated L4/L5 a month ago doing all the stuff you do when you own horses- lifting hay, feed bags, etc. Progress is very slow, but I have seen gradual improvements. I am very fortunate that I do not have the sciatica- just a little numbness that travels into my butt cheek on the right side- but that seems to be related to muscle cramping more than nerve issues. My biggest thing is locked up muscles and anxiety- initially I freaked out because my mind told me I’d never ride horses again or be normal, and I am, and was so scared to move all my muscles (low back and butt) that they just seem to stay locked all the time. I am exploring all avenues of recovery- I have seen a regular chiropractor who put me on traction and adjustments, a chiropractor that does kinesiology and nutritional supplementation, a PT and an acupuncturist. the traction and regular adjustments I have found cause more pain…the PT is a bit scary so far but Im doing it, the acupuncture is like a miracle for reducing the muscle cramping and pain, the supplementation has done wonders for my anxiety, energy, motivation to move and hopefully its helping my body repair. I have backed off on the regular adjustments and traction as they cause more pain and my kinesiologist does not feel I have a chiropractic problem- just an injury- I have had regular chiropractic care on and off over my lifetime. I have also found solace in prayer and knowing that God wants me to be healed. Even though right now its hard to imagine sitting on a horse, I plan to be back to doing it by this coming spring and I’ll do whatever I need to, to get there. Brittany is right- explore different things and go with the things that make you feel better- listen to your body- no Dr. knows it better than you do- they cant feel what your feeling. Lastly, once I am feeling much better I plan to start a blog on recovery from this sort of thing. I am mortified with the stories that I have read on the internet for people with similar issues…although I am sure they are real issues and I feel very badly for those that have not recovered or are in continual serious pain, there are very few success stories- maybe the people that get better just get better and don’t look back and write about their progress. If those that feel better would do this it might give hope to others that feel hopeless. See Ephesians 6:10
Large randomized controlled studies show that surgery is no better than conservative care for long-term outcomes. https://www.bmj.com/content/336/7657/1355.short
I have a bulging disc at L5-S1. I am very proactive with my injury, seeking out as many perspectives/opinions as I can. I saw the exercises that you do on a daily basis, however, most of the hyperlinks no longer work. I wanted to know if you have made an updated stretching/exercise routine. No worries if you have not. Thanks!