A Herniated Disc Is No Fun

Byron Kidd
Whenever I injure myself to the point where I can no longer cycle I immediately head to the Internet to seek out stories from cyclists who have experienced similar injuries to get some idea of how long I'll have to spend off the bike. But today I'm sharing my own story about a battle I've been having with a herniated disc (slipped disc) in my spine in the hope that the information I have can help other injured cyclists.

I began experiencing lower back pain in early January. Back pain comes and goes so I thought nothing of it especially as we'd spent a week at my mother-in-laws over New Years in which I spent the majority of the time, as the designated dish washer, hunched over a low kitchen sink. I figured it'd just get better like it always does.

Get better it did, so by mid January I was pretty much back to normal, but something, I do not know what, maybe poor posture at work, maybe a sneeze I seem to remember vividly, caused the pain to flare up again.

By the final week of January I was experiencing severe pain in my left buttocks. It felt like fire deep down inside, right near the hip joint, other times like after sitting or being immobile for a period of time it felt like all the muscles in my lower back and buttocks were squeezed tight. On occasions the pain would go down my leg, sometimes my foot would be a little "tingly". I was having trouble sitting comfortably, the pain was affecting my sleep, and getting up from a sitting or sleeping position was excruciating.

I did some googling and diagnosed myself with piriformis syndrome, a condition where muscles deep in the buttocks aggravate the sciatic nerve causing buttock and leg pain, not to mention tingling sensations in the feet. I then learned of some stretches which could alleviate the symptoms. I got to stretching right away.

I decided to stretch and rest for the weekend after an incredibly painful ride home on the last Friday of January. I told myself if didn't get better I'd go to the doctor on Monday.

It most certainly did not get better. It took almost 15 minutes and all the courage I could muster to get out of bed the following Monday. Most of that time was psyching myself up to deal with the pain of movement. I managed to get up in stages, finally utilising the windowsill stand up. As we sleep on futons it wasn't a matter of swinging my legs over the bed and standing, I had to get up from the floor. Once upright my walking gait was all over the place.

This needed professional help.

Skip the following paragraph if you don't want to read about toilet experiences ...

The final straw came when I needed to go, you know, sit down and go. When getting into the sitting position is painful, sitting itself is painful, getting back up is painful I really didn't want to go. But you can't refuse nature so I painfully got myself on the toilet and held myself up partly with my arms while I did what had to be done, then in intense pain got myself upright again.

I needed a doctor, fast.

I donned a pair of Crocs, because bending to do up shoelaces was impossible by this stage, and hobbled to the doctors just a few minutes away where I was informed of a 2 hour wait and was asked to take a seat. Ha! Like I could sit down even if I wanted! I left my card with them and choose to hobble home where I could stand in the living room without attracting undue attention.

Back at the doctors 2 hours later I received an x-ray and was informed that I have a herniated disk between the vertebrae at L4 and L5.

Whats going on, the doctor explained with the aid of a hand drawn diagram, was the cushion between my vertebrae was loosing its stuffing out the back and that stuffing was pushing on my spinal cord in just the right place to play absolute havoc with the sciatic nerve running down my left leg.

He explained my options:

1) Painkillers and stretching exercises
2) The above but with regular rehabilitation sessions
3) A injection of steroids to the lower back
4) Surgery

I chose option 1 thinking it better to start at the bottom and work up to more extreme treatments if that didn't work.

The doctor stretched my legs and spine this way and that in the painful almost brutal way that only doctors can knowing just how much your body can take. He then handed me a paper with stretching exercises almost identical to those I got from the Internet for piriformis syndrome and a prescription for two weeks worth of pain killers and anti inflammatory drugs (despite telling me I'd be good to go in 1 week).

I returned home, took a painkiller, and after the doctors manipulation I felt 100%, completely mobile, no pain. He's a miracle worker I thought, but it didn't last.

Tuesday I went to work and set myself up in a corner by a cabinet where I would work standing up. I tried to move around a bit and performed whatever stretches (few) I could in the standing position. Upon arrival home that evening my left ankle was in pain and my calf muscle all tight. I concluded this was because I'd been walking on a numb foot and that placed everything out of alignment.

Walking home from the station on Wednesday I discovered I had drop foot, my left foot would slap the pavement rather than being gently placed down in response to a signal from my brain to the muscles of my leg. This was disturbing as my list of aches and pains was getting longer.

But true enough after a week of drugs, stretching, standing at work and being generally careful about my back I could now get into a sitting position or up from a sleeping position without much pain. Despite the apparent improvement, sitting for any period caused pain to return to my buttocks and I was wobbling all over the place when I walked. Things were not right, but thank god the pain had been reduced.

During the second week after diagnosis I reduced my painkiller intake from 3 times a day to 2, and the buttock pain returned although not so intensely excruciating. I stretched, I stood, I walked on a half numb foot.

By rationing my painkillers I stretched and stood for a third week. By being careful I was able to operate almost entirely without pain, but careful still meant sitting for only short periods, not cycling, and I still had a numb foot which affected the mechanics of walking.

Last Saturday I went back to the doctor to explain I had hardly any pain, and that I was more worried about my lazy foot taking my entire body out of alignment causing damage all over the place. I wanted advice. What should I concentrate on, what should I avoid at all cost?

When I explained the situation the doctor quite sternly told me I wasn't stretching enough. I was surprised at this because I had been stretching morning and night and while at work I tried to move about and do whatever stretching I could in the upright position. Yet he insisted I was doing it wrong and needed to stretch more then proceeded to twist me into a pretzel, but compared to the pain of three weeks ago this pretzel pain was almost bearable.

The doctor then sent me to the rehabilitation room where I received 10 minutes of electrical muscle stimulation to my lower back and buttocks. This was followed by 10 minutes on the rack stretching my spine.  The doctor must have decided it was time for me to man up because no painkillers were forthcoming.

I was very tender to the touch around the left hip the following day. Until now the pain had been deep inside and poking it elicited no response. But after the doctor stretching me I could poke a thumb into my hip and cause one hell of a lot of pain. I'm convinced that was due to over enthusiastic stretching by the doctor, but its settled down.

So now its Monday, exactly three weeks since my initial consultation, and after three weeks off the bike where am I?

I sat at my desk, being mindful of my posture, for almost 2 hours this morning, but chose to return to my standing spot in an attempt to stop my body from getting locked into one position. I'll alternate between standing and sitting in the afternoon and see how it goes.

Pain wise, by left buttock and leg is OK, although the foot is still numb. Feeling returned after stretching this morning and walking was OK. But after sitting for a while the numbness returned.

Oddly after three weeks of butt hurt I'm only just now becoming aware of the pain in my back. According to my doctor this is as it should be, the pain should recede from the legs and buttocks indicating the nerve is no longer being pinched.  As a result of all the other pain going away I should begin to notice the back pain again.

I was expecting to be back on the bike before now, and could probably make the 7km to work and back each day, but I really do not want to aggravate the condition at this early stage. As difficult and frustrating as it is I'll stick with a stretching, sitting and standing regime this week and re-assess myself in a weeks time.

Recently the health dangers of sitting have been getting a lot of press coverage, its not just obesity, but back pain and a host of other conditions that can be bought about by inactivity. Sadly most of us, me included, are in professions that dictate we have to sit at our desks for at least 8 hours a day.

I really do want to encourage you to learn about the danger of "extreme sitting" as I'm calling it, and take countermeasures so you don't end up where I am right now.

I've crashed my bicycle countless times, I've broken bones after being hit by cars, but this is THE most excruciating pain I have ever experienced and it all comes from the innocent act of sitting.

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  1. Byron, i suffer from the same malady. Injured myself snow skiing about 25 years ago.First bouts were debilitating, recurred once or twice a year, tried chiropractors (modern day witches)then a Sri Lankan physio. Well, with stretching by him and a variety of yogic stretches and breathing / stretch exercises , I now keep it under control. Only very rarely do I have to make a trip to the physio, I think he did himself out of work.The sciatic nerve going through my hip bone gets pinched when sitting (not always) sometimes it occurs when squatting to pick up something. Also fiddled with adjustments to my bicycle seat as the physio believed if I was too high the action of pedalling could set it off. Live with it these days, pray for minor bouts (at 63 everything starts to ache). I am back in Japan in a few days to study for a month in Tokyo and 2 months on the road touring, hopefully pain free.

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