Back Injury, Now What?

As some of you know, I have been struggling with a back injury since early April. This is the first time I have ever seriously injured my back, and I hope it is the last. I herniated my disc between the L4 and L5 vertebrae. The protruded part of the disc is pushing on my L5 nerve root and causing sciatic pain down my right leg.

Sciatic pain

Some of you know the pain I’m speaking of. For others, like me previously to this, you may not really understand what it feels like. The only way I can describe sciatic pain is that there is pain and sometimes numbness or tingling that runs down the leg. The pain is most severe in the morning and when I stand up from sitting. I also feel it if I let my right foot get too far ahead of me when taking a step. Some type of natural, easy movement seems to help keep the pain down.

What led to my back injury

I originally strained it on April 9th doing a heavy deadlift. I was 20 pounds lighter than my normal bodyweight and my body was in a depleted state. I was less than two weeks out from my first bodybuilding competition. I was a lean mean fighting machine… BUT weaker.

Looking back on it, I had no business trying to go for a 1RM with the state my body was in. Lesson learned the hard way! The weight I attempted to lift was something around 87% of my max. Heavy, but not something I would really struggle with when doing before.

I went to lift the weight off the ground and felt something go in my low back. I dropped the weight immediately. At first, I thought, that was weird. And I stopped right there. I took the weight off and felt a little tightness and some bit of discomfort. I didn’t feel anything terrible at that time.

Picking up dumbbells

On April 13th I was sitting on the bench getting ready to pick up dumbbells off the ground. I bent over while still sitting on the bench and grabbed the dumbbells. As soon as I lifted them off the ground, I felt a little pop in my lower back and then the pain. I haven’t really been pain-free, walked normal since, or been able to put my shoes on without any pain.

Now what

It’s been two months since I injured my back and I’m still dealing with the pain. The mornings are the worst. It is a challenge just to brush my teeth. The hardest part of the day is getting my shoes on. After a couple hours of moving around the pain is more manageable and I can walk more normal.

Met with surgeon

This past Tuesday I met with a surgeon to discuss my MRI and what my options are. He explained to me what he saw on the MRI and said I have good reason to be in pain. He showed me on the copies he made of where the protruded disc is and how it is pushing on my nerve. He then explained two options to me. I can have surgery or let the body heal itself.

Option 1. Surgery

The surgeon I met with said that he was very confident that a procedure called a discectomy would alleviate my pain. They would make a small incision in my lower back, and remove the bulge that is pressing on my nerve. The procedure is relatively quick, and many people leave the hospital on the same day. Most people recover in six to eight weeks.

Option 2. Let the body heal itself

The second option is that I just suck it up and manage through the pain and let the body heal itself. The way the doctor explained it to me is that the disc part that has bulged out would slowly deteriorate and the body would then absorb it. Over time the bulge will get smaller and smaller where I won’t have any more complications.

What are the chances of successful recovery from a back injury?

Chances of a successful recovery from a back injury from both options are highly likely. He said if you compared the people that had surgery and the people without surgery two years down the road they would be equal. The difference is that the person that had surgery would recover much faster.

However, surgery doesn’t come without its drawbacks. In the doctor’s words, “There is no free lunch in this world.” The procedure itself is pretty simple, BUT they do have to cut and drill on parts of the body that will forever be changed. Because of where the bulge is, they would need to drill a part of my vertebrae to get the instruments in and see the bulge clearly. He also mentioned that he would have to cut through ligaments, which could potentially leave the back in a weaker state and set me up for future surgeries like a fusion of the vertebrae.

What I’m choosing

Based on the information I received from the doctor. I’ve decided that I’m going to let the body heal itself. The main reason I’m deciding this is because I don’t like the sound of having to cut into muscles and ligaments, which provide a lot of the stability of my lower back. I want to maintain that structure as best I can so that I don’t have another back injury.

It has slowly shown improvement over the two months. My foot is no longer numb, and the pain when I walk isn’t as bad as it used to be. I hope that in another two months I won’t feel it at all and the bulge has gone away or has decreased in size enough where it doesn’t push on the nerve. It sucks, and it hurts, but I’m learning how to deal with it.

Picture of my back injury that shows where the disc has protruded.

What I’m doing while my back injury heals

Recently I have been able to start going back to the gym. Getting back into the gym has been a huge relief for me. I start to get very irritable when I can’t do the things I want to do.

I took almost 6 weeks off, and it is crazy how fast your body composition can change when you don’t work out and aren’t eating well. I think part of that is being depressed about my back injury and eating everything in sight.

I also meet with a physical therapist at least once or twice a week. For now, we are working on movements that don’t create any pain and focusing on bracing with the abdominals to help create stability in the back. I have been to the chiropractor as well, and that seems to have helped some. The traction machine that stretches the back out provides some relief.

The most beneficial thing for me has been not sitting too much. Or if I do, really sit as upright as possible.

I haven’t been able to get back into CrossFit just yet, but I have been doing more of the machine type exercises. I’ve also picked up a new toy called the Steel Mace. I really like this workout tool because I can take it anywhere and still work in ranges of motion that don’t aggravate my back. For the most part I’ll do activities that don’t load the spine or have me bend over.

This isn’t my normal routine, but I know that this is where I’m at right now and that I need to play the long game. Squats, Deadlifts, and the Olympic lifts will always be there, and I will be able to get back to them once I’m fully healed.

Author: jpbolwahnn

JP is a Former Navy SEAL coaching professionals to their highest quality of life through health and mental performance.

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