It was an inauspicious mid-January work morning when I woke up with slight soreness in my lower back. The night before, my right hamstring had been tighter than normal when I went for a run, so I’d taken it slowly, not wanting to twinge anything hamstringy. Little did I know that the damage had already been done, and this was going to be my last run for months.
Things went downhill (sic) slowly over the next two days. By Friday I had self-diagnosed, with Google’s help, sciatica, and was doing yoga positions that sounded more like dishes in a Chinese restaurant than stretches. Then I jumped in the back of a truck and headed to Hood River, Oregon, for a ski weekend at Hood Meadows.
I scrubbed up bearably stiff on Saturday morning. As the ski day progressed, I got looser and better. Well before 4pm I was skiing normally, and hope, soon followed by beer, filled my veins. That night I iced, I stretched and planned the next ski day with friends. And before I knew it, I woke up at 7am Sunday. In agony. Virtually unable to stand up, and completely unable to sit down due to incredible lower back pain. My friends knew it was bad when I said I wasn’t skiing that day.
The next day the doc diagnosed rest, physical therapy, ibuprofen. The physical therapist toyed with my legs, diagnosed ‘one leg shorter than the other syndrome’, and when I left the pain had been reduced to minimal (the exact opposite of my normal experiences with such professionals ;)). I was really hopeful now, organized my next appointment on the Wednesday, and headed off to do some evening binge electrical gadget shopping.
I returned for my Wednesday appointment walking almost normally, but still with a tight right hamstring. Being a good therapist, my girl tried to stretch the hamstring. 15 minutes later I left pretty much unable to walk (more like it!), as she called my doc to recommend an MRI immediately. By Friday, I knew I had a herniated L5-S1 disk in my lower back. Things went really downhill from here, and I attacked my prescribed Vicodin with gay abandon to survive 3 days until a specialist appointment. I didn’t ski that weekend.
An 8mm disk protrusion is apparently a bad scene, my specialist told me with a wry smile. A strong surgery candidate. It certainly hurt more than anything I had imagined was possible from my body. Even dosed up on fine narcotic painkillers, sleeping on a bed or soft surface was an experience too painful to contemplate. In fact I spent a month sleeping and working and watching TV from the floor, reserving my limited seated times for necessary work and vehicular travel.
Mornings were a nightmare of sleep deprivation, slowly hobbling around the house, inability to dress, agonizing toilet visits, and waiting for the Vicodin to kick in before going to work. The doc-proposed microdiscemtomy surgery option sounded more and more attractive in the face of all this, but avoiding back surgery unless absolutely necessary seemed a sensible strategy. Maybe I’d be one of the 80% who heal in 6 months without intervention, I joked as I walked out of my appointment. I knew exactly what he thought!
I left my specialist with a prescription for a high blast of steroids (Medrol Dose Pack) to reduce the inflammation, and in theory the pain. It sounded worth a try before hitting the knife.
The other complicating factor in all this was of course skiing. It was winter, we ski. We had plans to head up to Revelstoke that weekend to meet up with a bunch of friends for a huge Canadian ski week. The prospect of 10 hours sitting in the back of our truck was about as attractive as watching a full day marathon of the Waltons. The prospect of spending a week at great ski hills, sitting in hotel rooms, made a week at work seem attractive. All I could do was pop the steroids and cross my fingers.