Spinal disc herniation

This page contains practical tips and observation from carrying for my partner, who suffered from spinal disc herniation in 2013 (ironically, my father also had spinal disc herniation). This is not medical advice, go see your doctor if you have backpain.

So what is spinal disc herniation?

Spinal disc herniation is an injury to the cushioning and connective tissue between vertebrae, usually caused by excessive strain or trauma to the spine. It may result in back pain, pain or sensation in different parts of the body, and physical disability.
Wikipedia

To make it even more clear: your spine is like an extremely tidy sandwich. Each vertebrae is a slice of bread, and in-between them, there's a soft thick slice of cheese that has the perfect size and allows the slices of bread to move when you bite, and it's so well done that the cheese never falls of.

Except for the day where you bend down one too many times, and the slice of cheese comes out, and now the bread pinches it. You cannot put the cheese back into place. Oh and the cheese is actually connected to your nerves.

Welcome to hell.

You suffer an unimaginable pain. Each movement sends high voltage bolts in your whole body. You can't sleep, you can't barely do anything anymore, and with that comes several after effects like losing your autonomy, social circle, etc.

A radiography showing an herniated disc
That bloody cheese leaking out of the sandwich.

There are several ways of curing spinal disc herniation. My father got an operation to remove the herniated disc. He spend a few months without moving, laying on a bed after that. With time, his two vertebrates, now touching each other, kind of fused, which means he's not suffering anymore but has lost flexibility.

But what if you can't get an operation?

Dealing with pain

You have to learn how to live with pain, and find ways of reducing it.

Painkillers

For a time it's done with medicine. Painkillers that could calm a horse are administrated, and if they work for most people, they have several drawbacks.

And if that's not enough, they can mess with your brain. By administrating painkillers regularly for a long period of time (because spinal disc herniation will last years), the brain may loose it's capability to understand when there's pain, which can result in Fibromyalgia.

So painkillers work and are necessary at the beginning, but should be avoided when it's possible.

Kinesiotherapy

Better get used to it, kinesiotherapy is going to be a staple of life after spinal disc herniation. My partner goes every week to have massages to relieve pain.

More than a year after her spinal disc herniation, I learned about the McKenzie method, which is a bit controversial.

My partner tried it out, as classic kinesiotherapy was not working, and surprisingly, the benefits where very real. She regained mobility and it helped her, reducing the pain she felt while moving.

So, it might not be a silver bullet, but you have a testimony that it works, at least for her. Maybe try it and see if it fits your needs?

Neurostimulation

In France (where I live), rheumatologists are not knowledgeable about pain and their answer is always painkillers. The terrible thing about spinal disc herniation pain is how it self-sustains itself. You are in pain, so your whole body tenses up, resulting in more pain like Sciatica crisis.

It took years for my partner to learn that, yes, pain specialists exist and that, at least in France, each major city has a center that is specialized in pain. However, it is very long to have an appointment (3 to 6 months) and your doctor needs to send a demand of registration to the center first.If you have a pain department or center near to your location, get to your doctor as soon as possible.

One of the major discoveries we made was the existence of neurostimulation as a way to reduce pain. It's an extremely simple system: a neurostimulator sends short electric bursts that alters the perception of pain by blurring it. It can be done with an operation, but can also be trans-cutaneous, by using electrodes. You often see this in hospitals.

Now the good news is: they exist in very small form factor.

A picture showing a neurostimulator with electrodes
An example of using a portable neurostimulator to reduce pain.

My partner borrowed the same model as the one in the picture above, and the results were extremely positive. Suddenly she could take long walks again, relax before going to sleep, even do chores that were impossible to her before (like using a vacuum cleaner). After a few weeks, she had a prescription and bought one herself.

She's been using it for years now, and it allowed her to live a mostly normal life again. She sometimes use it one hour a day, sometimes several hours. When traveling by car, plane or train, she keeps it for the whole duration.

Now this tool is great, but it has flaws:

It looks like a lot of trouble, but it's actually nothing compared to the benefit of being able to live a normal life again.

Furniture for everyday life

If you work at a desk all day, you need a dedicated chair. I already wrote about this so I won't redo it here. Go see a specialist, not a classic office furniture shop. And prepare some money, it's expensive. Consider it like a mattress you will keep 15 years and pay the price if you can afford it.

About mattresses, you will probably have to change yours. You need something that is firm enough to have your spinal chord in the right position, but soft enough that it won't compress your muscles. Finding this balance is extremely complicated and took us years. The way we achieved this is by taking a memory foam firm mattress and its bed frame, and adding a two centimeters memory foam mattress topper to gain more smoothness.

Buy all this online and profit of the free 30 to 60 night tryout return policy. We tried several time to buy in shops, but the feeling you have when trying it on site versus actually sleeping in it is totally different. Also don't hesitate to mix the brands of mattresses and mattresses toppers. Finally, if you travel by car, bring your mattress topper with you. When you don't know the quality of beds you are going to sleep in, it's good to an insurance policy.

If you drive, there are several things that can relieve the pain. First, prefer high habitat cars, like family breaks, and avoid low cars. You want to go up in the car, not to go down when entering. The straighter you sit the better, and the best way to do it is by adding memory foam cushion to avoid a narrow angle between your back and your legs. You can find models that have a hole where the sacrum is located, to reduce spinal cord compression. Favor them.

The clutch pedal in manual car is probably the main problem. Since it requires strength to be pressed and hold, as well as having a leg in suspension, my partner was not able to drive again. Unfortunately, changing cars for an automatic is not possible for everyone (including us), but if you were in the process of changing cars, think about it. Electric cars are particularly good, as they don't produce as much vibrations that are transmitted to your back (that can be reduced with a foam backrest).

Disability recognition

If your country has a disability recognition system, apply for it. You probably won't get money from it as spinal disc herniation is not considered grave enough, but you can probably get a disability card that can ease several parts of your life.

Among them:

Your injury is now your job

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it's because it is. The hardest part of this kind of injury (and disabilities in general) is to understand there's no going back to how things were before. You will have to input this handicap in every aspect of your life for at least the next five years.

You need to take your injury as your second job. And just like at your existing job, you will do what is required to make this thing work.

The mental charge is real and added to your existing ones like house keeping, work, kids. Furniture and tools require lots of money, which means only the richest people will have a faster recovery. If you have a partner, a lot of things will change and will need to be re-balanced. You might not be able to work for a while and financial dependency from your partner might happen, which always complicates things.

There's a new normal that needs to be acknowledged. One where there's always a cushion in the car ; where sleeping at the hotel or an host's room requires inquiry about the bed quality ; where you re-distribute chores in the house depending if it hurts or not to do them ; where you cannot help during renovation ; where you cannot lift your kid in your arms.

It's depressing, it's always going go be there, and it's nobody's fault. There's no one to blame, no one to be angry at, no one to shout at. Seeing a therapist is probably a good idea to get in terms with the situation. If you have a partner, they should probably see a therapist, as they will also feel this injustice, and cannot direct it at you. Once again, it's nobody's fault.

Take care and feel free to ask me question if you have any by using the links below.