If you’re reading this page, you may be going through some serious chronic suffering with your back, and desperately looking for a solution to stop the pain and go back to your normal life.
I’m writing this because I’ve been through that. In this post, I will describe the process I went through when my back went out on me due to a L5-S1 disc herniation a L4 L5 disc bulge.
I will tell you all the things I tried, what didn’t work (or even made it worse), what worked a little and gave me hope, and finally, how I recovered from my herniation life-hindering pain.
A familiar story : following weeks of discrete looming pain in my lower back and buttock, one day, while innocently stretching my left hamstring, my lower back snapped. I felt excrutiating pain in my lower back, buttock, and leg.
The pain did not go away and kept worsening, and I became unable to move, sit, stand or even lie down without much suffering.
Over the next days, I could not sleep at all due to the pain, and had to crawl on the floor to reach the bathroom. For the next 3 months, I was going to walk bent in half, supporting myself with my hands on my knees and dragging my feet so as to move my hips as little as possible.
After the first couple of weeks, my pain became chronic, with a consistent, excruciating shooting nerve pain in my buttock, behind my thigh and knee, along the calf and in my left foot which got numb.
THREE MONTHS OF INTENSE CHRONIC PAIN
I had an MRI and got diagnosed with a disc herniation L5-S1 plus a disc bulge L4-L5. Not only was the S1 nerve root pinched, but the MRI detected a narrow spinal canal (stenosis) which made things worse but reducing the space available for the nerve.
Throughout the dreadful 3 months that followed the snap, I tried A LOT of things in the hope of getting some relief and eventually recovering from my herniated disc. I saw many doctors, including a rheumatologist, a neurologist, a physiatrist, a trauma surgeon, and a chiropractor.
I was prescribed painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, neuroleptics, spinal injections, osteopathic manipulations. Nothing had any effect for more than a few hours, if at all.
Given my permanent forward bent position, the doctors told me my lower spine had lost its natural curve. One doctor even even claimed I had an inversion in my spine’s natural curve, a very serious condition.
(In reality, my bent in half position was simply a result of my body working around the pain, but I only found that out after the pain from the L5-S1 herniation started receding)
For the first 10 days or so, I lied down on my right side on a hard couch, trying to move as little as possible not to stir up the pain, with my legs laid out in the least possible painful position – although certainly not pain-free.
A few weeks after the snap, the pain somewhat reconfigured itself. Sitting with my back slouched became the least painful position for short periods of time – which came as a blessing since it allowed me to scrape by a little bit of work on my laptop.
I was still unable to walk or even stand except in that bent-in-half, hands-on-knee position. Even 3 months after my disc slipped, the max amount of time I could stay upright was 10 seconds (stopwatch). After that I had to revert back to supporting myself with my hands on my knees.
Searching the web day after day, I learned about L5-S1 disc herniation, L4 L5 disc bulge, sciatica, and other similar painful conditions, as well as treatments and drugs. And of course, lots of terrifying horror stories.
I read that in many cases, invalidating sciatica pain starts receding within 6 to 8 weeks, when the slow process of recovering from disc herniation begins. In my case, however, it had already been 2 full months and the pain in my lower back, buttock and leg showed no sign at all of relief.
The acute and permanent pain along my sciatica nerve kept me up at night, forcing me to sit up for long lapses of time, sometimes even trying to sleep in that position. My left foot was permanently numbed. Lying on my back or on my left side was just impossible.
I was really depressed and didn’t eat much. I lost 15 pounds and a lot of muscle mass. I couldn’t leave my house except to drag myself to the doctor’s once or twice a week. My work was reduced to a bare minimum, i.e. a few emails per day.
My prospects were bleak. I felt like I would not be able to walk normally ever again, and that the numbness in my foot and tingling in my calf were here to stay.
Sports had always been a major part of my life, being a passionate surfer, kitesurfer and stand up paddler. That was all history. A new, gloomy life had begun.
FIDDLING WITH MOVEMENTS
It had now been 3 months since my back had gone out with a L5-S1 herniated disc, a L4 L5 slipped disc, and a pinched sciatica nerve. I had gotten used to walking bent in half at the waist, supporting myself on my knees.
My upright standing time was still stalling at around 10 seconds before the pain forced me to bend again. A doctor acquaintance of mine said : “come on, this is ridiculous, 10 seconds after 3 months … Go get your surgery already.”
Yet I refused to get surgery. My research showed that surgery (laminectomy, spinal fusion etc) for herniated discs is only recommended in case of nerve damage with leg weakness and/or bowel / bladder dysfunction.
That wasn’t my case, I “only” had constant, solid pain and some numbness in my left foot. And again, the amount of time I could stand upright, my main progress metric, was not improving.
I kept reading about people’s experiences with sciatica nerve pain, and realized many people took to exercise as a way to get over disc herniation, particularly L5-S1.
Yet I felt I was in no condition to perform any kind of movements, although the idea appealed to the sports guy I was.
I learned about the role of spinal decompression in herniated and bulged discs, and soon decided to get a pull-up bar to let my body hang and help spread my vertebrae away from each other. Giving my discs more breathing space might help them get back into place and away from the nerve.
The initial challenge for me was to stand up with my arms raised in order to grab the pull-up bar, not being able even to stand upright for more than a few seconds.
It was a painful process, but setting up the bar low enough allowed me to keep my feet on the floor for support, avoiding fully extending the spine – which I wasn’t able to do. In other words, I was able to remain bent at the waist while hanging.
I started doing this a few times a day, for a few seconds up to a minute. Soon I noticed my upright standing time started creeping up, reaching a few minutes after 2 weeks – this was about 3.5 months after the snap.
This filled me with new hope. Bolstered by these (tiny) results, I decided to research and experiment with more movements to help get over my L5-S1 herniated disc. I realized I was able to get down on all fours and remain in that position relatively painless.
From this position I tried several things, such as “cat and dog” stretches (too painful), kneeling planks (doable but hard), and diagonal arm and leg raises (OK at low speed and low frequency). I got a fitness ball and continued exploring similar exercises.
About 14 days after getting the pull-up bar, I was able to get out of my house to visit a friend, and sit at her place for a couple of hours. I still couldn’t stand up for long, but things were improving very slowly.
FROM RANDOM EXPERIMENTS TO TARGETED MOVEMENTS
I kept reading about maintaining good posture and strengthening core muscles to support the spine, reduce compression, and avoid pushing the discs backwards onto the sciatica nerve. I suspected this was key to recovering from my L5-S1 disc herniation.
That’s when I stumbled upon the 30 year-old McKenzie approach and decided to try it. I read the book and tried the exercises, whose primary purpose is to centralize the pain in the lower back as opposed to lower down in the buttock and leg.
The main exercise I tried was lying down in prone position (on my stomach) and progressively pushing my upper body up by extending my arms, thus extending the spine.
Lying on my stomach was extremely painful, let alone pushing myself up onto the elbows. I worked on it for a few days, but the pain in the buttock and leg was always there and left me to wonder if the exercise was appropriate in my case.
I guess It depends on the angle of your slipped disc and the direction in which the disc is pressing onto the nerve.
I also tried one of the flexion-based, spine bending exercises, sitting on a chair and bending to touch my feet. Although it didn’t trigger any sharp pain, it felt uncomfortable, like stretching the wrong way.
While I was experimenting with McKenzie, I got an email from Cris Mills, a surf trainer who runs an online surf stretching program and whom I had contacted for advice – nostalgic as I was about my surfing days. He suggested I check out a method called Foundation Training.
At first, the Foundation Training website looked like many others, claiming to offer a solution to chronic pain. I was skeptical at first.
Then I saw the dozens of comments on Amazon from users suffering from serious back issues – including herniated and bulged discs – who had had great luck with the program.
So I watched some of their free videos as well as a TEDx conference that explained the science behind the method. I also watched a demo of the basic Founder exercise and tried to follow along as best as I could.
The 2-minute exercise gave me a nice feeling and a subtle sense of relief. I kept doing it for a few days, and soon noticed my upright standing time was improving.
I took the plunge and bought the DVDs. The price was a hefty $70, but I was desperate, as the progress I’d made from my own exercise mix still seemed microscopic.
The way things were going, I’d never again be able to run, jump, paddle, or exercise like before.
I’m a very patient and disciplined person when it comes to learning. I did the exercises step by step in the recommended way and order, without skipping around, for several weeks on end.
Soon after I started the program, I started noticing some results. I was soon able to stand upright longer and walk better. The pain started to “centralize” (in McKenzie terms, i.e. creep back up from the leg and butt to the lower back).
I couldn’t believe my herniated L5-S1 was actually responding to these simple movements. Again, I’ve described my experience in detail in this exhaustive personal review.
After about 6 weeks of doing the FT exercises, at a pace of 10 to 15 minutes per day, I felt strong enough to get on a surfboard and paddle out in flat water.
Fast forward 2 years : my back injury is history, I have fully recovered from my disc herniation, and I’m back to my sporty life, having resumed surfing, kitesurfing, and wave SUP. I can run, jump, work out, play, swim, paddle again.
All those things some doctors (and I) thought I’d never be able to do again.
I’m pain-free, and have Foundation Training to thank for it (the FT site has moved to a subscription-based model but you can still get the old DVDs on Amazon through this link if you prefer a one-time payment).
The method has taught me to move correctly, fix my hip and shoulder imbalances, strengthen and engage my posterior muscle chain, and maintain good posture in all situations.
It’s not a one-time, miracle pill though. The exercises I learned have become a permanent part of the way I live, move, and train. I do them practically every day, either as warmup before a workout, as standalone abs / lower back workout, or during daily activities such as brushing my teeth.
I can honestly say Foundation Training saved my life. In my next post, I’ll explain the principal exercises in more detail, and how they actually worked for me.