Over the past two years since herniating a disc, I have made dozens, if not hundreds, of online searches for all sorts of related information: symptoms, pain, medications, therapies, surgery, and so on. I doubt a week has gone by without a fresh google search, and this week was no exception. Yesterday I came across a blog post which was all too familiar and completely spot on to my own experiences. The author shares five lessons he learned after three months of dealing with a herniated disc. He said it all quite well, but I want to take his five lessons and share a little about my experiences in learning those same lessons.
Three months post-herniated disc, sitting was a definite no-no for me. Now that I am two years post-injury, I can sit for varying lengths of time, seemingly with ease although the outward appearance is rarely the same as what I am feeling inside. It is not always easy to predict in advance, but I tend to find certain sitting surfaces to be worse than others. The pews at church, the waiting room chairs at the pain clinic, a sofa, a chair with too much angle in the backrest…all will almost instantly increase the pain in my back, legs and feet and also make my feet go numb. Sitting in the car for a drive across town is usually okay now, but a half hour drive will start to feel uncomfortable and anything longer will be painful.
I sit as little as possible, which is difficult when I am out of the house. Going out for dinner. Going to a friend’s house. Watching a movie or play at the theatre. Attending a sports event. Church. Meetings and appointments. You never really realize how much sitting we do until it hurts to sit. I’ve missed out on seeing many movies at the theatre. I’ve missed a lot of church. I am constantly weighing my current pain level against how much sitting might be required. Even waiting for a doctor’s appointment often “requires” sitting, because waiting rooms are not designed with space for people to stand while they wait. I’ve looked rather out of place standing in front of a chair in a busy waiting room many times.
My husband bought me a recliner to replace the zero gravity lawn chair that I had been using for well over a year. It’s still not quite perfect; I need a pillow under my low back, but it is better than lying on the floor all the time. I do everything from my recliner: eat, watch TV, read, surf the web and write my blog posts. Reclining or lying down doesn’t eliminate my pain; it merely changes the focus. I have constant nerve pains in both my leg, which are worse when I am lying down. Sitting makes the legs worse but also the back, so I avoid sitting as much as possible, knowing that sitting will only make the disc situation worse.
2. Non-linear healing
Sigh. This is absolutely, completely true! Although I have never had even one minute without pain in the past two years, there are plenty of not so bad days and very bad days. Predicting when things are going to go downhill is a crapshoot. I am thankful, I guess, that the actual back pain I feel tends to be sporadic and often related to too much bending at work, thus easily alleviated at the end of the day. The nerve pain is the worst. Mostly it has been stuck between a 5-8/10 range for the past year. It never gets better than a 4/10 though, and lately the range has been trending upwards. Some sneezes put fear in my eyes. I lost two weeks of work recently due to the back pain going Mount St. Helen’s on me. One tiny step forward, four or five steps back.
3. The Mental Game
The injury and ever-present pain take enough of a toll on the mental game, but, when you add unfruitful treatments/medications, lengthy waits for procedures and appointments, and ongoing frustrations with the medical system, the mental game gets a whole ‘nother level of nitty gritty.
My emotions have been up and down, inside and out, twisted and gnarled. I cry. I rage. I am angry and bitter towards the health care system. There is an air of despair and defeat swirling around me that threatens to blow me over. Depression is constantly knocking on the door. Even when I feel as if I am in a good head space, those darker emotions are still lurking in the shadows. I am easily annoyed and irritated by so many things that are of little consequence. Some days are a struggle to do basic self-care, while other days I feel like I could conquer the world.
4. Differing Opinions
Oh boy! Yes!
My former GP seemed to have limited knowledge with treating a herniated disc. His standard response was that it takes time. That and, “Have you tried traction?”
My physiotherapist had me do lots of extension exercises. My chiropractor also had me do extensions, at least until he put me through more testing. I am thankful to have good chiropractors in my life, ones with all sorts of tools at their disposal, and they have never treated my injury with a cookie-cutter. My chiropractors are always testing me and making changes to my rehab homework based on how my body responds at the time. I like that my chiropractors aren’t afraid to change things up based on what is helpful or not, so I don’t really see this as quite the same thing. This isn’t conflict but appropriate experimentation.
But I do see conflicts elsewhere. From my GP, my pain doctor, and all manner of articles on the internet. This makes navigating one’s injury all the more challenging and confusing.
5. Exercise: Helpful or Not?
I have exercised throughout the past two years, because exercise had been a regular part of my life for the four years prior to the injury. Of course, my activity level and what I was actually doing changed drastically after the injury and slowly, very slowly returned to something closer to my pre-injury state and yet not quite. Has staying active helped? Maybe. Maybe not. I like to think that being active, healthy and strong prior to the injury actually helped me at the moment of injury, but I suppose that could be debated by people smarter than me. Staying active after the injury, with a great deal of respect for what was going on inside my body, helped strengthen my back and core while allowing me to retain some of my strength and regain flexibility.
Some exercises certainly would not be helpful, and I am well aware of the potential for setbacks if I push too hard or far. Thankfully I have a coach to help guide me, and he communicates with my chiropractor, which means I am well looked after.
I don’t want to give up on exercise, even though there are still limits to some things I can or cannot do and the constant nerve pain makes certain exercises harder than they should be. If I didn’t have a coach and chiropractor working together to help me, I’m not sure that I would be exercising as much as I do, and I do think that would be a bad thing on many levels.
Two years with a herniated disc. Five lessons learned and, I’m sure, many more yet to come.