I get that a lot.
Are you OK? Do you need to rest?
I get that, too.
These are questions I never expected would come up so regularly in my twenties. Yet here we are.
TL; DR version:
I hurt my back. There’s stuff I can’t do.
There’s a fairly basic video explaining it right here.
The longer, detailed version:
I have a herniated disc in my lower back. It’s also known more dramatically as a ruptured disc, more commonly a pinched nerve, an most inaccurately a slipped disc.
So what does this mean, exactly?
Right, time to whip out the visual aids.
To the left you’ll see what your spinal cord and related bits look like. To the right is mine. That looks painful, right? So what’s the difference? Well…
What makes mine different from yours is that yours doesn’t have that purple arrow area with the white goo leaking out. And that’s what’s up. My herniation occurred on the left side, which means that my left leg is the affected one. Why my leg? We’ll get there.
What? How? Why?
Who knows. Disc herniation is a result of disc degeneration (wear and tear). This could be because I’ve been using my back muscles instead of my leg muscles when lifting things (and I’m sure you’re not guilty of this at all, right?). In my case, it’s definitely not because of age (watch it!). Bottom line: at some point, a range of smaller injuries caused little tears and cracks in the outer layer of my inter-vertebral disc. The goo inside the disc gradually pushed against this fragile area (think of a fish tank with a crack in the glass), which caused it to rupture.
(Yeah yeah, I could be using all the fancy terms, like annulus, capsule and nucleus, but I didn’t know these names without googling them so I won’t be that girl and force you to pretend you care.)
I should mention here that it’s not the herniated disc itself that hurts. In fact, you could have one right now and not know about it. However, the goo (OK OK, the nucleus) leaks out and pinches a nerve. This leads to what is known as radicular pain, which really just means that pain is referred to another part of the body.
In my case, the nerve involved happens to be the sciatic nerve, which is like the aorta of nerves.
Still confused? Allow me to explain further. See the image below? The yellow nerve is the sciatic nerve. Quite a big one, eh? No see how it’s red and inflamed all the way down the left leg? That’s what’s up with mine.
I suffer from what’s known as sciatica. Symptoms of sciatica include leg pain, tingling, weakness and numbness. For the time being, I’m lucky enough to only have to deal with (what ranges from hardly any to debilitating) pain (more on this in a bit). The pain usually starts in the lower back (roundabout where the injury is located) and travels through the buttock (yep, endless fun at the Korean physio with that one) and all the way down the affected leg.
So how exactly am I affected?
On a good day, not so much. I can do most of anything, though my leg quickly reminds me if I’m doing something it doesn’t like. I start experiencing a pinching sensation right behind my knee, or at the back of my ankle. This also happens when I sit down to put on my shoes. Even on a good day, putting on sock and shoes is no longer a reflex, but a manual exercise.
On a medium day, I’m aware of the pinching sensation all the time, regardless of what I do. This isn’t the end of the world anymore, and I often don’t even mention it. Sometimes my entire leg will ache, other times I’ll have the pinching sensation, and on a few occasions I’ll have any combination or both of these. It helps to be super aware of my posture on these days, and to stand more than sit. I also head for physio more regularly during these times.
On a bad day, sigh. On a bad day I hate everything. The only thing that brings me any relief is standing upright. And there’s only so much you can do while standing upright. I usually struggle to find a comfortable lying position. Sitting ranges from virtually impossible to really uncomfortable. Forget sitting on low seats or comfortable couches – an upright chair is about it for me, and then my posture suffers because I have to find a position that takes pressure off my leg. Walking is fine, and so is climbing stairs, but only if I take tiny steps. Walking fast is a no-no. If I move beyond where my body wants me to (like bending to pick something up off the floor, or reaching for the bottom drawer, or even trying to dress), I get a pain down the side of my thigh that often leaves me in tears. The bad days aren’t pretty.
Quite the adjustment, eh?
I’m happy to report that not all days are bad days. I had really bad days when my injury first appeared last April, and again after I slipped on ice and fell effing hard on my back in December. In between all that I’ve had a few medium days, and many wonderfully good days. However, I’m frustrated to report that I’m currently experiencing a few bad days – I woke up one night last weekend with excruciating pain, so I’m back on meds and at physio. (This, incidentally, is what led me to finishing off this post – it’s been lying in my drafts since December.)
Why is pain a good thing?
Remember how earlier I mentioned that “I’m lucky enough to only have to deal with debilitating pain”? Who knew that’d be a good thing, right? Well, that’s because, while I’m experiencing pain, it means that the nerve is being irritated, but it’s not actually damaged. Numbness indicates a damaged nerve, and this is a bad thing. So for as long as pain management is a part of my life, I’m basically good to go (ha!). I’m very thankful that I haven’t had even the slightest loss of sensation.
When dealing with a herniated disc, most professionals agree that conservative is key (thank goodness!). Conservative treatment includes non-invasive methods like medicine (anti-inflammatory and pain meds – cortisone and codeine, baby!) and physiotherapy. I’ve been going to physio on and off for, like, ever. Thankfully there’s a hospital between my apartment and my work, so I stop by routinely, or more often if I’m in more pain than usual. Traction is my favourite thing ever.
If ever I get tired of said conservative therapy, or if I start experiencing the kind of pain that makes normal functioning impossible, or if I start experiencing weakness and/or numbness, we’ll move on to the next step, which involves long needles and my spine. I can’t say I’m particularly looking forward to lumbar punctures and the like, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.
As a last resort, there’s several surgeries that can be done. This ranges from making a tiny incision and, well, fixing the problem, to bigger operations to repair damage and stuff. Clearly I haven’t done as much research into this particular area yet. It’s another bridge I don’t have to cross for a long, long time.
Debriefing and disclaimer 😛
Yeah yeah, so this makes it sound like I have a really miserable life. I don’t. I’m OK. Promise. Kinda. Of all the ways my body could fail me, this is not such a bad one. Yes, I have to think differently about how I go about things, and yes, sometimes it sounds like I have a very lame excuse for not doing things. But by taking care of myself, I still get to “live a normal life” (whatever that means). And if it gets too much, there’s always long needles. I am in a lot of pain sometimes, but I don’t go around seeking sympathy for it. I don’t like the fuss. If you hear me complaining, it’s probably a really bad day. That said, I have plenty of perfectly regular days.
And now for the disclaimer. If you’re reading this and you’re my mother: I’m doing OK. You’re not allowed to worry any more than you normally would. If you’re my close friend: I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough or I can’t do something. Just be conscientious, the rest will come naturally. If you’re an acquaintance: Yup, “my butt hurts” and “my leg is aching” are actual things. And finally, if you’re in my life right now (in whatever capacity): Thank you for your support and understanding. The bad days are easier with a good support network.
And finally-finally, to everyone who sent messages after my post about my sucky Christmas: thank you thank you thank you. Your messages of encouragement did just that, and it was so good hearing from people I hadn’t spoken to in months.