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Back Pain, Surgery, and My Road to Recovery!

The first time I can remember feeling lower back pain was in December of 2018. I was prepping for my second bodybuilding competition, and from that point on, my coach and I were cautious not to do anything that would hurt or make my back worse. Prior to my back pain, I was enjoying squatting and deadlifting very heavily. I started looking into powerlifting because powerlifters lift heavy weights and don’t have to diet down; they just eat to lift. Did lifting heavy hurt my back? Not sure…. I guess I will never know.

As training went on, my back pain was not getting any better. I was living on Advil, and my heated seat in my car was my heating pad. I wore a belt when I was lifting and an elastic waist trainer when I did my cardio for more support. The back pain began to interfere with my training for my show.

In July of 2018, my back finally snapped! I couldn’t move! I had severe sciatic pain. I tried stretching, Advil, heat, ice, whatever I could find, and it wouldn’t go away. One day the pain was so severe that I went to the emergency room. They gave me a shot of Toradol, and that just took the edge off. During the next few weeks, I went to the chiropractor and physical therapist. They both suggested the next step would be an MRI.

Back diagnosis:

Multilevel degenerative disc disease.

At L3/L4, there is some disc desiccation. There is left paracentral disc herniation encroaching into the left neural foramen, causing mild stenosis.

At L4/L5, there is a minimal posterior central and bilateral paracentral disc bulge.

At L5/S1, there is disc desiccation. There is a narrowing of disc space. There is right paracentral disc herniation with disc protrusion; the protruded disc fragment measures 6 mm. This is causing severe stenosis of the spinal canal on the right side with some mass effect on the exiting root.

I was informed that surgery was the only way to correct this. I couldn’t believe that I had to have back surgery. At this point, I was willing to do anything to fix my back and get back to working out. I can barely walk, and I’m doing the recumbent bike to get exercise. I wanted my life back.

I got an appointment with a wonderful neurosurgeon Dr. Yoon at Penn Medicine. Dr. Yoon explained to me that I had a few things going on with my back. First, the 6mm disc fragment needed to be removed because it was pressing on my sciatic nerve. Then he explained to me at L5/S1 that there is disc desiccation, and there is a narrowing of disc space. The spine is made up of bones called vertebrae, in between which are small fluid-filled discs. Desiccation of those discs is a common disorder caused by the tissues becoming dehydrated. The discs between the vertebrae in the spinal column absorb shock and impact and prevent the bones from rubbing against each other. Disc desiccation is a normal part of aging. The discs can become smaller and less flexible as they dehydrate and eventually start to break down or degenerate. Repetitive movement, such as heavy lifting that strains the back, can cause this as well. Dr. Yoon had to break it to me that I can no longer lift heavy ever again. He warned me that this could happen again if I am not careful. Besides all of that, I have some disc herniation and a bulging disc. Dr. Yoon explained that he would be performing a Laminotomy. A Laminotomy is an orthopedic, neurosurgical procedure that removes part of the lamina of a vertebral arch in order to relieve pressure in the vertebral canal. This surgery would only fix my sciatic pain. To fix everything, I would need a spinal fusion, and he would not perform a spinal fusion on me. A spinal fusion is immobilizing a section of your spine and places additional stress and strain on the areas around the fused portion. This may increase the rate at which those areas of your spine degenerate and you may need additional spinal surgery in the future. I definitely didn’t want any more back surgery.

A nurse came in to set up my surgery, and as soon as she started speaking, I burst out crying. It felt like everything I loved was just taken from me. I just discovered my love for lifting only 2 years before this. Lifting changed my life, my body, and my mind, and now it’s gone. The Dr. came back in to speak to me and said that it’s not totally over and that I can lift safely. I love pushing my limits to see what I can lift, and I will not be able to do that ever again.

October of 19′ I had my surgery. It was a success, and I went on to do physical therapy to speed up my recovery so I can at least get back to working out. I, of course, did not recover as fast as I wanted. The sciatic pain went away, but I had some numbness and tingling in my right leg. This was expected since the disc was pressing on my nerve for a while.

As time went on, the pain was still there. I tried to work out, but it usually left me with more pain for the next few days. Pain medicine was not helping and my nights were usually spent resting with my heating pad.

The pandemic started in March, and I was now anxious over what was happening in the world, in pain and depressed. I also just started my master’s degree and haven’t been to school in 20 years. My stress level was at an all-time high, and the weight just packed on.

During the next few months, I tried several epidural injections, and nothing helped. Hopelessness started to set in. I was in pain, I can’t work out, and it feels like I’m getting heavier by the minute. I turned to food because that is my drug of choice. Working out used to replace food, but now I can’t do that.

In November of 2020, I had an appointment with my pain management Dr., and she suggested facet injections may help with the other issues in my back. Facet joint injection involves injecting a small amount of local anesthetic (a numbing agent) and/or steroid medication, which can anesthetize the facet joints and block the pain. It took a few weeks, but I finally got some relief!!!! My back is far from pain-free, but I’ve been able to work out. In just a few weeks of working out, my mood has changed, and I have been eating better, as well. I may have to get more injections in the future, but I don’t care as long as they work.

We can all say that 2020 was a terrible year, but I can add 2019 to that as well. They were both challenging years for me but, by far, not my worst years of my life. Having breast cancer has taught me about putting things into perspective, and I realize that my back issues are not the end of the world…..just a little road bump. I may have lost myself a little in the past two years, but I learned a whole lot as well.

So 2021 has been looking up for me. I graduated ahead of schedule with my master’s degree in exercise science and nutrition wellness. The pain in my back has been tolerable, and it’s allowing me to workout.

So now I’m on my journey back to fit! So far, I have lost 2lbs!!!! I’m not looking to be ripped to

shreds; I just want to feel comfortable in my skin; above all, I want to be healthy and strong. Not only my body but my mind as well.

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