Friday, February 17, 2012

Living a Full Life with Chronic Back Problems

One of the defining aspects of my life over the last year and a half has been the development of a herniated disc in my lower back. I've had problems with back pain for most of my life, but disc issues are not something to mess around with. Though I've never particularly enjoyed exercise, I've always been at least moderately active. I took pride in being strong enough to lift heavy boxes myself, keep up with my dog on a run, take the stairs instead of the elevator without being out of breath, etc. I also really enjoy food and was able to eat whatever I want as long as I burned it off at the gym. That worked out fairly well for me until my little hernia friend reared its ugly head.

All of a sudden, I found myself in a position where any physical exertion at all was likely to render me immobile with pain. After one particularly black weekend when I couldn't move off the couch for two entire days without sending excruciating pain shooting throughout my body, I realized I needed to respect this injury and allow it to heal on its own schedule.

So I rested. And rested. And rested some more.

I would try my hand tentatively at going back to the gym or running here and there, always with awful, painful results. And so eventually, I resigned myself in frustration to being a couch potato, thinking I could never exercise again.

But that was just anger and denial that I had to deal with this problem. I've now accepted that this is a (albeit annoying) part of my life, but my herniated disc is not going to steal all of my health. I cannot work out like I used to, and I may never be able to again, but that doesn't mean I am limited to being an immobile lump. So, some lessons that I've learned about nursing myself back to health in the face of physically limiting injury:

Respect Your Boundaries: Don't do anything that will cause you to hurt yourself further. Don't say yes to snowshoeing with friends because it sounds fun, if you know it will probably sideline you for weeks. Be careful in the sack, if you know what I'm saying - share your limits with your partner! Know when it's better to rest with a warm bath than go for a run.


Test Your Limits:  I had this idea that if I couldn't do the workouts that I used to do, then I couldn't exercise, PERIOD. Well, I've had to reframe the idea of what exercise involves. I'm not running on the treadmill at top intensity or squatting a hundred pounds, but I want to be an active person. It turns out I really love yoga and I can go for hour-long walks without negative repercussions. So I do that.

Prioritize Your Health: It was easy to let my health take a backseat for awhile because I was also newly self-employed at the time, and that was time-consuming. But leaving an injury like this to languish just lets it get worse. Throwing some dollars and effort at the problem is worth it to me now, knowing how much it can help! I didn't give up until I found what worked for me either. I tried chiropractic, physiotherapy, acupuncture, naturopathy, swimming, Pilates, and kinesiology before I settled on a combination of yoga and massage therapy that really works for my body. It's kind of expensive, but I got a group benefits package that covers the massage and I decided that I can't afford not to pay for the one type of exercise I like and can handle.

Prevent the Consequences from Spreading: What I mean by that is, this is a medical health issue. It's going to affect your medical health, there's no way around that. But here's what also happened to me: I didn't reel in my food consumption to account for burning fewer calories, and I gained weight. I started to hate my body. I didn't feel strong. I didn't want my partner to see me naked or have sex with me. I didn't want to go on a tropical vacation because I'd have to wear a bathing suit. I got depressed when I couldn't go hiking with my friends - one of our favourite activities beforehand.

This was dumb because I love trying new recipes and can still enjoy the same quantity of food if I make lighter (not less delicious) recipes. My boyfriend thinks I'm beautiful and wants to have sex with me, and wants to go on vacation to a tropical destination with me. My friends, it turns out, don't really care if I can't go hiking, they just want to hang out, and there are lots of fun things to do together. So... this problem didn't really didn't need to spill over into my weight, my mental health, my sex life, and my friendships, did it?

Being active and taking care of the pain with massage therapy, and being proactive about making other areas of my life positive have all helped immensely to keep my back problems from negatively affecting my whole life. These have been hard lessons to learn, though.


  1. Hey!

    Saw you post over at yes and yes this morning... Just thought I'd letcha know I liked ya, and started following you :-)

  2. Thanks Mel! I have bookmarked your blog to check out later too :)