Notes on a lower back herniated slipped disc

I just walked upstairs with a cup of tea in one hand and a vacuum cleaner in the other. This time last year I couldn't even walk, let alone get upstairs, because I had a herniated disc, more commonly known as a slipped disc. This is the story of my recovery.

I'm writing this story because most of the personal contributions on the Internet that I read when I was ill are less than positive, and I wanted to bring some hope to those who are have just suffered this condition. This is my story, not a generalisation, or a definite map of recovery, but I hope that it will help you to think positively.

My herniated disc finally occurred when I tripped over a carpet. I had suffered back pain for almost two years leading up to this, and taken paracetamol. In the weeks leading up to the herniation, the pain became worse. At the moment of injury I felt a 'ping' or 'snap' in my lower right back and fell to the floor.

On Monday I could not feel my lower leg or foot. I attempted to walk to my local doctors surgery, but my leg gave way and I fell to the pavement, unable to get up. I was very frightened and worried, and a passer by called an ambulance. When I got to hospital I was examined, given Tramadol and diazepan in the accident and emergency department and transferred to a ward for observation.  I was finally given a CT scan an it was confirmed that I had a disc herniation at L4/L5.

On my final day in hospital, I was given a pair of crutches and taught to walk up and down stairs with them. I was given a physiotherapy appointment for 1 weeks time. At this point the pain was still almost unbearable and I was discharged with paracetamol.

The day following my discharge I spoke to my local doctor and discussed pain relief with him. He prescribed co-codamol and ibuprofen 400mg, which went some way to controlling my pain, but only if I set my alarm and took them in the night.

The worst part of this was that the diagnosis of 'a slipped disc' made people roll their eyes and claim they had suffered this a carried shopping home the next day. I found out that there are three categories in the 'slipped disc' range of meaning:

swollen disc - where the disc is swollen, causing local tissue pain
bulging disc - where the soft disc tissue bulges and causes tissue pain/nerve pain
herniated disc - where the soft matter from inside the disk leaks out and causes tissue pain/nerve pain/sciatica

It is likely that those people who carried shopping home the next day did not have a herniated disc.

Week 4. My hospital appointment arrived. I went to a spinal unit to see if I could have disc surgery. This was the first time I had been outside my home since leaving hospital. I was given a sick note for 6 weeks and told to go to physiotherapy. The specialist was reluctant to operate and informed my that the numbness I felt in my leg would probably be permanent. He told me that I could never wear high heels again and would probably always have a limp. He suggested spinal injections and morphine implants, but I was so shocked that the injury was permanent that I could not make a decision.

Week 5. I walked outside on crutches. I went round the block, and further each day. I went to physiotherapy and became upset when I couldn't lift my leg off the physio table. I started regular Mackenzie stretches and attended physio twice a week.

Week 6. I was still in tremendous pain, but I managed to walk on crutches to the chemist and bought a TENS machine. I also bought a knee support for my left knee which was now painful because of the adjustment in walking. I went to physio twice this week. No improvement in my reflexes.

Week 7. I decided I would try to go back to work part time. I was still taking a lot of pain medication, but I needed to keep my mind off my injury and keep my job. I managed to walk without crutches, but my foot dragged along the floor and flopped. I discovered through googleing this that I now had a 'drop foot'. The sciatica was very bad, but under control with pain medication.

Week 8. Christmas. Heavy snow meant I couldn't walk in the street, so off work for almost three weeks. I stopped taking co-codamol during the day, and changed to ibuprofen and and paracetamol. This stopped any drowsiness. I still could not sit on soft furniture, but could sit on a hard chair.

Week 9. I still hadn't been able to bend my leg enough to lower myself into a bathtub. I had been taking showers and badly missed bubble baths. I had not been far from home until now, but now I had to plan travelling with work. This involved rail and air travel, and it filled me with terror. What if it happened again on a train, or worse, a plane? How would I get home?

Week 10. This week I was discharged by the physiotherapist with an exercise sheet. I was far from better, and I remember looking at an exercise where I would bend forward from a sitting position to touch the floor and laughing, I would never, ever be able to do this. I still could not lift my right leg to a right angle and I was still in pain when lying down.

Week 11. The lift broke at work and I had to walk up two flights of stairs. It took me 1 hour to do this, but I did it. Until now I had only really seen my family, friends and regular work colleagues, who had not really mentioned my appearance, but this week I had a national meeting at work, and people gasped and looked very shocked when they saw my gait. I resolved to practise rolling my foot and walking better.

Week 12 At this point, my life had stabilised a little. I was still taking ibrurofen400mg and paracetamol. I had noticed that I wasn't in so much constant pain, and I made a visit to my local doctor to talk about my recovery. He told me that I would not fully recover, that I had the numbness and the limp for life, and that I may get the same severe pain at some time in the future if the same, or another disc, herniates.

Month 4 February 2011 - More snow and difficulty walking, but my balance was getting better. Still unable to lift or bend forward. My main aim now is to raise my knee to a right angle without searing pain.

Month 5 March 2011 - Went on the train from Manchester to London. I was able to sit for 2 hours without getting up in pain. Getting on and off the train was difficult as was the Underground, but all the escalators were working so it was relatively easy. Managed to stay in a hotel bed without severe pain, something I had worried about. Saw a colleague I hadn't seen for a year, who was shocked at my limp. Later in the month, I noticed that my foot was swelling badly if I walked any distance. My doctor advised this was normal as the physiology of my body was still adjusting to the injury.

Month 6 April 2011 - I still cannot lie in bed without pain, particularly if I put pressure on my right leg to turn over or get up. Sleeping much better with no need for painkiller in the night, but sill taking co-codamol before bedtime. Lifted a small box at work. I was able to put my socks on without too much of a struggle, but not sure if this is just due to a new technique rather than improvement in movement range.

Month 9 July 2011 - I'm finding it more and more difficult to think about the future with my leg like this. My birthday is coming up in September and I want to go out socially and want to wear heels, but then I remember that I couldn't walk at first and how that felt.

Month 10 August 2011 - I turn over in bed, pushing hard on my right leg, and there is no pain. I try it again, and there is still no pain. The numbness has not changed, and my leg is still weak, but the pain had lessened at last. There is no sudden nerve pain. I vacuum the carpet for the first time in ten months (my partner has been doing it for ten months!).

Month 11 September 2011 - It's my birthday and I go out in small heels. Unfortunately this doesn't really work as my shoe keeps slipping off - I can't grip it with my toes. I manage to dance in a nightclub and drink alcohol. No one comments on my walking and my partner notices that my limp is improving. For the first time since I had my injury I didn't feel like I was 'just coping'. I felt relaxed and hardly thought about my leg at all (may have been the vodka!)

Month 12 October 2011 - One year since I hurt my back and the only things I can't do are crouch down, sit on the floor easily and sit on soft furnishing. I can lift reasonably well, carry shopping bags, walk more than a mile, go upstairs on the bus, sit in the car for an hour or more. I changed the net curtains at my window and stepped form a window ledge with my left leg first...

Read my full back pain diary here:

I am very pleased to announce that, following the posts on this blog appearing on the Two Views of your Body Website  and, as a consequence, thousands of requests for my full pain diary from my back injury, I have published the full version of my diaries along with some extra material on painkillers, physiotherapy, positive thinking and acceptance. I hope they help you to know that you are not alone on your own back pain journey.

US Back pain sufferers: Back Pain Diaries: My personal back pain recovery journey 

UK Back pain sufferers: Back Pain Diaries: My personal back pain recovery journey 

This edocument includes a full diary of my back pain and my experience with pain, painkillers, movement, mood and exercise. The full diaries and articles are now be available on Amazon.

I'm also sharing the story of my friend Paula's hip replacement recovery story from her 'Birds on a Wire' blog, where she talks about positive mental attitude and overcoming obstacles.


paula said...

this is a real public service, J. I had something similar happen to me many years ago. that disc is now totally gone deteriorated according to imaging, but as long as I'm fairly active and don't do anything stupid, I have no pain. I used many of your same tips to recover from (2) total hip replacements this year (see She Walks, She Talks on my blog for more), with the addition of lots of physical therapy and swimming, or at least light to moderate exercise in a swimming pool. I still do that several times a week, and it helps immensely. Glad to hear you are doing better.

paula said...

Jacqui, Thanks for the link back. Here's an incredible story of mind over matter from the wedding section (!) of today's New York Times. I hope this marriage works as well as it promises to.

For some people, especially those who have suffered emotional trauma, positive thinking and even exercise isn't enough. They need to find some sort of emotional closure if they are to begin putting back the pieces of their lives. As someone who lived with PTSD for many years, I can tell you it will thwart your best efforts, your most rigorous exercise program and all your positive thoughts, especially if you don't have a clear recollection of the cause. Here's something I wrote two years ago about PTSD:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post. It is a total godsend. I'm healing well at almost a year in. Every time i have a setback, or need some positive thinking i come back here for inspiration.

Anonymous said...

I have been read this post at least three times, because it gives me hope. I have had a herniated disc now for five months, but it's only been a month and a half since my MRI. I'm so glad you feel better now. You are a warrior for surviving. I'm actually considering surgery. I don't think it is the right thing to do, but I'm not sure I can endure another night of pain. I just started acupuncture and have my second epidural on Thursday, so maybe something will help me keep going without the knife. Anyways, I'm interested in the way you examine pain as negated as a construct outside the self. I thought a lot about the strangers who I have let touch me during this--so many painful massages, needles, midevil traction machines. In a way, pain threatens sexual safety. (I'm just an English MA theorizing.) Another instance I keep thinking back to was when I need psychological help, in the early days, and a physical therapist told me, people with my attitude (depressed) experience chronic pain--like my need for emotional support was the reason for my pain. I was offered no support, no affirmation that I am going to get better. Back to the idea of sexual safety, the fault for this physical violation was placed on me, the victim. It's hard to not think in terms of rape when I think of healthcare. I thought I would throw that out there, because you may understand what I mean. My name is Stacey, by the way.

Peter Cummins said...

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Chicago Pain Center

Anonymous said...

Thank you for being so kind to share your story. I also suffer from back pain, and was told my three discs in the lumbar region of my spine, had slid into my spine and nerves. The pain now radiates down my leg. This pain started about three years ago. I've been told surgery is the answer. I see you are an intelligent lady, and am wondering why you have avoided surgery. TY

Jacqueline Christodoulou-Ward said...

Hi, and thank you for reading my blog. In my case I did not avoid surgery, I was told that it was not an option and the balance of risk involved was not worth it for me as it would not improve my condition.
I guess each case is diagnosed on its individual merits in terms of surgery. In your case I hope that it works, one of my colleagues had a discectomy and it worked for him.
Thank you again for reading the blog, I would be interested to know your experiences with the surgery.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jacqueline. Thanks so much for sharing your long and difficult experience. I'm an osteopath and always trying to find ways to help people with chronic pain - ie pain of more than 6 months or more. Your blog is really helpful to think about the language we use as healthcare professionals, how we communicate with patients and how to help a patient understand their options. I'm astounded by how often patients come to me with painkillers and advice that hasn't really enabled them to find a way to help themselves. Only a patient can make a decision about their body and we need to find ways to give you the information you need yo make those decisions - preferably with compassion. I'm so pleased you are recovering well and managing the more lasting damage with positivity. Latest research shows that nerves do regrow, albeit very slowly. If you haven't read it, The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge might be of interest.

Carrie Walton said...

Hi Jacqueline, your blog made very interesting reading, thank you for sharing it, it's been a long journey for you. In my case, back in January, I bent over the bath to wash my hair as I had done a million times before and my back just 'went.' I had really bad pain naturally and the following morning I saw the out of hours GP who sent me straight to A & E. While waiting to be seen by a consultant, a locum asked me to try and touch my toes (!) When I told him that bending over that way from the waist had caused my back to go in the first place and the pain was too bad for me to try anyway, he just repeated the instruction. I told him I didn't want to try and do that and he just grunted. I was sent home and told to take painkillers when required.

Then, a week later, I was getting out of bed in the middle of the night to pop to the loo when it suddenly got even worse and I was in agony. My daughter, who had been staying over to help me, heard me scream and came flying in, saying that she should ring for an ambulance but I told her not to. She was crying, I was crying, it was awful. The next morning I had the doctor out to me, who prescribed Naproxen and Codeine. The Naproxen I took for 4 weeks, the Codeine for 2 days as I read that you could easily get hooked on them, although the doctor told me to take them for as long as I needed to! On the 4th week of Naproxen, I developed terrible heartburn and, according to the doctor, this was caused by the Naproxen, an anti-inflammatory. I have been taking Gaviscon Advance ever since.

The pain is a lot better but still there some of the time and I can't do a lot of things, such as lifting anything remotely heavy, hoovering - as you yourself couldn't - or anything where I have to reach or stretch. I was interested to read you were sent for a CT scan. Did they offer you an MRI scan? I need to have mine checked to see what the damage was but I am claustrophobic and the thought of having an MRI scan fills me with dread. When the doctor came out to me, she said to go back if the pain didn't go and she would send me for an MRI but I didn't tell her then that would be a no-no. I hope you don't mind me asking and would be grateful if you could reply to my post. Meanwhile I wish you all the very best in your continued recovery. Best wishes, Carrie

Jacqueline Christodoulou-Ward said...

Hi Carrie
In fact, I did have an MRI scan as well while I was in hospital, but just before I went home. The reason I had the CT scan first turned out to be that the MRI scanner was busy and have no available slots. I didn't find it too bad, it was quite a short time in the scanner and they played music, but I think that I didn't mind it partly because I just wanted to know what was wrong with me at that acute stage. It would probably be worth trying it, nothing bad can happen and you would get a firm diagnosis then.

I'm sorry that you are going through this and I hope that things improve for you. Please let me know how you get on.

Deep said...

This is Awesomely inspiring , Thanks Jacqueline for Sharing this.
I just finished 3 weeks since my herniated disc L5-S1 and to read something like this is Very empowering . God Bless you I hope you are enjoying life as normal .

Thanks again for sharing this , I am now more hopeful that I can reach something like this by next 30 or so weeks

Sarah P. said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I am struggling with a herniation at L2-3 and read your post when I'm feeling down. Mine happened in Nov 2014. I have upper leg weakness and numbness along with muscle twitching and thigh/groin pain. I'm not a candidate for surgery though and the PT exercises don't seem to help much. I do the Mckenzie stretches also and have corrected my posture, etc...all the things they tell you to do to help it heal. Some days are okay, other days I can't move without pain. Sometimes I can't feel my leg very much which is scary. My herniation is medium size (4-5mm) but it is directly impinging on the L-3 nerve and sure hurts like $&*&!! and I've read research online that the size does not always correlate with the pain. My doctors don't really listen to me when I explain the pain and only give me naproxen. I often wonder if the MRI was inaccurate. This is all very frustrating and depressing. I am struggling at work (office job) but luckily they have been very understanding and even let me bring my laptop home to telework when it's really bad. Your story gives me hope that I will maybe heal in time. The internet is full of horror stories about these things so it is a relief to read that someone actually did heal. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi Carrie,
Hope this finds you well.
I have the same.. L4/L5...recently i have been experiencing alot of pain...but after a few days rest i can return back to my normal routine, as in I dont think its as bad as what you have gone through. Just wanted to know. Did you every wear heels again??? I'm a shoe lover and for me to give up wearing them, especially since I'm kinda short, is not easy. Btw...I'm 24 years old.
Best Wishes..nami

Alan said...

I´ve seen very good results on my patients treated with osteopathic techniques. Indeed, there is a great work that gives all the resources to treat sciatica with Osteopathy and the results and it is called 'Osteopathic treatment of low back pain and sciatica caused by disc prolapse'.

Unknown said...

My L5disk herniated 1 and a half years ago to the point it had crushed my nerves causing searing pain and following this numbness. I had a steroid injection in my spine then I was operated on, doctors performing a discectomy, including realigning my nerves. I have coped since then with daily doses of tramadol along with amitriptyline. Not afraid to say the drugs have become a crutch. I constantly put my back out by simply sneezing, bending wrong. Having a bad day as was out walking dog and tripped. It went again. There is another op I could have which would fuse the bones together. Has anyone had any experience with this. I am really not a complainer. Just a bad day. Carmel. X X

Herniated L5/S1 in Spain said...

4 months into herniated disc L5/ S1. 32 years old, never had back pain until 6 weeks before I put my boots on for work and it went. Living in Andalucía, Spain, interesting to compare our experiences and treatments. I am in what my physio calls 'the rebound stage' however, high heels, cycling and any sport right now seems far off in the future. I've been off work for 14 weeks (primary school teacher) and been going for daily ultrasound, tens, hot lamp and stretches with private health insurance, thanks to work. Have spent a fortune on taxis (can't drive) and alternative medicine (reiki, cráneosacral masage, therapeutic swimming lessons etc). Was dosed up on valium with everything else for first month (NEVER again!) and now still taking naproxeno and pregabalina morning and night (reduced quantities). I look forward to the day, I only have to worry about putting on high heeled shoes! It has been a journey so far, 3 more weeks and I'm hoping to be back at work but let's see. Keep on fighting and cry when you need to is my advice. Ginger tea is good for calming you as well. Stop reading negative stuff because I know this is the first place I've found anything slightly positive online.