This month marks 5 years since my last surgery, an L4-L5 discectomy which followed a L5-S1 Laminectomy and an L1-L2 Schwannoma removal in 2011. Along with degenerating discs and spinal stenosis, my recovery has been long, on-going and something I need to work on every day.
To put it bluntly, the last five years have been a series of highs and lows. Though recovering from surgical procedures wasn’t that bad (2-months of easing back into a regular routine with lots of physio in-between), it was a long, arduous journey towards figuring out what types of movement would and wouldn’t aggravate my spine. Here’s a few things I know now, that I wished I had known back then:
1. Stay away from heavy weight-training.
As someone who lifted weights for many years, it was a struggle to stay away from barbells. The old me kept highjacking my brain. ‘I need to strengthen my arms and legs and be in peak condition at all times’… but as most good physiotherapists will tell you, it’s your core that you need to strengthen the most. Spine-Health states: The abdominal muscles provide the strength to keep the body upright and for movement. When these core muscles are in poor condition, additional stress is applied to the spine as it supports the body, and back injury or back pain is more likely. And to do this, I followed Dr. Stuart McGill’s Big Three Exercises.
2. Pills are not the answer. Here’s a partial list of the medications I was using: Gabapentin, Lyrica, Percocet, Baclofen, Naproxen. Not to say that these meds aren’t useful when in extreme pain, but to take them daily was a mistake – meds often mask pain that I need to be aware of so that I can identify the source, and correct the underlying behaviour. After weening myself off these drugs, I found that OTC pain relievers work just as well and a recent study in the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine concluded the same, stating.. “the total amount of opioid consumption was significantly lower in the group that received both Ibuprofen and Percocet compared to the group that received just Percocet”
3. Doctor’s can’t fix you completely. You have to be your own advocate, and do your own research and keep digging for answers wherever you can find them. After bouncing around from doctor to doctor for years, by 2018 I came to realize that other than some surgical options by various orthopaedic surgeons, none of which seemed practical, it was going to be up to me to advocate for my own well being. After reading some books, listening to many podcasts, and listening to first hand accounts on Youtube, and speaking with other people with similar spine issues, I came to the realization that there was no one simple solution. It was going to take combination of approaches from Western medicine (OTC drugs), Alternative medicine (e.g acupuncture), holistic medicine (e.g turmeric pills) and constant exercise (e.g physio, yoga).
4. There are alternative approaches to healing. holistic medicine, supplements, daily exercise and good nutrition can go a long way towards easing everyday aches and pains. There’s a phrase that’s been floating around holistic circles for many years…”you can feel pain, but you don’t have to suffer”. When my naturopath first said this to me, I thought it was a little woo-woo, and dismissed it almost immediately. But after years of meditation, I definitely have a better understanding of the physical/emotional dividing line between pain and suffering. We often spin an entire stories around our painful conditions which pushes us down this wormhole of suffering.
Articles such as this written for the Atlantic describe how mediation can change the way the brain processes pain signals, not eliminating the cause, but altering the way we perceive it
Good nutrition can also provide a great deal of pain relief just by knowing what foods decrease inflammation (Turmeric, Cherries for joint pain) and which foods cause it Nightshade plants (e.g tomatoes), which admittedly the research is still unclear but in my case my joints can feel it after a pasta dinner, and sugars and starches.
5. Nobody’s coming to save you. Show up, put in the work. In a very Karma Yogic sort of way, a person needs to figure out the general cause of their back pain (in my case, any sort of flexion…usually sitting) and work at alleviating it full-on, every day as if it was part of your dharma. In Stephen Cope’s new book, The Great Work of Your Life, he mentions Marion Woodman, the great Jungian analyst who, when diagnosed with uterine cancer, made this stage of her life, part of her dharma, fought it intensively, and even wrote a book about it.
A couple of good spine days in a row, and I use to think, ‘hey, it’s done, I’m healed’. Nope, not even close. For those of us with chronic back pain with serious underlying issues (Sciatica/Stenosis/DDD etc), it’s about regular maintenance and never losing site of that fact that your back can go from great to horrible with the slightest movement.
In the spring of 2015, that movement was bending over to tie my shoe…it landed in me in the operating room a few months later, I now us a shoehorn. True story.