I have had occasional lower back pain since at least back in high school. I think being tall and thin and involved in a lot of sports had something to do with it. For example, things like playing basketball and executing flip turns in the pool seemed to aggravate the problem. Whatever the underlying causes were, however, the simple fact was that the muscles and connective tissues in the lumbar region of my back were never strong enough to facilitate the types of activities I was engaged in. For years the only consequence of this imbalance was occasional pain and discomfort. But in December of 2008 at the age of 33, after a particularly intense game of Ultimate Frisbee, my lower back problems would become much more serious.
I knew something was really wrong this time. This was more than the usual tenderness in my lower back, which tomorrow would become stiffness and possibly shooting pain down my leg. No... this sensation was a bit different. Normally, after running up and down the hard-packed soccer field where we played our games of Ultimate, my back would feel like I imagine a steak feels after being thoroughly pounded by a meat tenderizer. This "beat up" feeling was still there, but a strange numbness in my right big toe was telling me that I was injured in some new way.
Maybe my mistake was stretching the way I did that night. I had recently taken a few yoga classes and decided to try some of those nifty toe-touching stretches that felt so good. Later I would learn that bending over and touching one's toes is just about the worst thing you can do to a bum lower back. In any case, my tingly toe got progressively more numb and within a couple days had degenerated into sciatic nerve pain in several places along the entire length of my right leg. I also suffered from ankle weakness and foot drop, a disconcerting condition where you actually lose some motor control of the foot. In my case, I couldn't lift my big toe up past horizontal.
Turns out, I had ruputred the L4-L5 disc in my back. For years I had ignored warning signs that the ligaments and muscles supporting my lower back were too weak to sustain the stress of the activities that I was engaging in. This weakness allowed too much pressure to be put directly on my spinal column, causing disc material to be pushed out between my vertebrae, irritating nerves and causing the occasional pain that I had been experiencing. It also left me vulnerable to a more severe disc injury, such as what finally happened that day playing frisbee.
As a result of this injury, I have suffered a little pain, a lot of discomfort, temporary disability (for not being able to walk normally for a couple months), depression (when I thought I might never get better), and chronic nerve irritation (which still hasn't gone away). However, by focusing on rehabilitation and constantly searching for new exercises that work, I've been able to return to an active lifestyle and have even improved my overall fitness.
The reason I'm writing this blog is because I know my experiences will be invaluable to others who have suffered from similar lower back injuries. Those who have also severely herniated a disc should take encouragement from my story, since I am almost fully recovered from a problem that generally has a pretty bleak prognosis. Most importantly, however, are those who suffer from chronic lower back pain who haven't yet suffered that sudden life-changing injury that will require tedious, lifelong rehabilitation.
I most urgently recommend that these such persons take my story to heart: You have got to start taking care of your back! Don't wait until a disc herniates or ruptures, which is something that can happen to anyone at any time... not just people like me who play sports. The exercises that I am doing to "feel like my old self" are precisely the same exercises that will help you protect your back so you will never have to experience the months of disability, pain, and mental anguish that accompanies having a blowout at the central pivot point of your whole body.
Plus, at risk of sounding like a Bow Flex commercial, you will become a bit of an ass-kicker, since strenthening your core will not only prevent lower back problems, but will also give you better balance, agility, circulation, and pretty much improve every other aspect of your physical being that involves strength, coordination or overall conditioning.
So, I hope those who can benefit from my disc injury and rehab will be able to take something of value from this blog. I've tried to include every experience and bit of information that has helped me during my journey. Perhaps with comments and discussion from readers like you, this blog will become an even better resource!