A Physio's Perspective on his own Lower Back Disc Injury

“Sometimes it is easy to empathise with your patients when you have experienced exactly what they have been through”

Ian is one of the Physiotherapists working in Liverpool. He has been kind enough to share his experience.

Most People Have Heard of a Herniated Disc, But What Exactly Is It?

A herniated lumbar disc is a displacement of disc material (nucleus pulposus or annulus fibrosis) beyond the intervertebral disc space. This then causes those contents to compress on the close lying nerve. The highest prevalence is among people aged 30-50 years, with a male to female ratio of 2:1.

My Journey

With this in mind, my journey started with a mere ache felt on the outside of my leg just around my knee. I used to find it comfortable to sit on my foot with my left leg bent. I can now only assume that it was this position that may have caused the ache. I was a young and newly qualified physiotherapist and in an attempt in intellectualise my discomfort; I had put this ‘sitting position’ first in the line-up for a possible culprit for my presenting symptoms. The ache would come and go and tended to be worse when I had been sitting for prolonged periods of time.

The Build Up

I found myself in a happy zone, pain free and enjoying my ability to run, jump and play sport. During a trip to Norway, I was playing a long and competitive game of squash and noticed after the game had finished that my lower back started to ache. The ache persisted through the week, so as a physiotherapist and a pre-emptive good patient in the making. I started to complete all the strengthening and stretching exercises that I would expect my patients to do. The ache still persisted and I started to notice that my big toe started to feel slightly less sensitive and the outside of my calf had a tingling sensation running through it.

A Scan Was Required 

I sought additional advice from my colleagues and eventually was put onto the waiting list for a diagnostic scan to detect a possible underlying disc injury. Whilst waiting for this to happen, a rollercoaster of symptoms arose. Fluctuating sensations from mild calf pain to excruciatingly sensitive and inhibiting hip pain, followed by a buzzing calf and big toe. At one point I was still working on a hospital ward and I needed to lie on the floor in an attempt to pick a patients slipper up off the floor. This is when I made the decision that I needed to face my injury head on and within the limitations of my pain and side effects of the medication I needed, which allowd me to mobilise. I attempted to regain my previous mobility and ability to move.

“There were definite lows”

The scan date came and went and I had been diagnosed with a central and left side herniated intravertrabral disc (slipped disc). Eventually it came to a time where I had been unable to work and walk properly for 8 months, I had lost a lot of weight, I was very unhappy and I had seriously considered my options on my ability to return to a dynamic career like physiotherapy. I underwent 2 separate surgeries on the disc to allow the nerve to be able to send the appropriate signals to the muscles and skin and I have been regaining my strength and mobility ever since. Although this approach is never the first choice for a disc injury, in my case the decision was made to go ahead and remove the problematic disc.

It all works out in the end

For my journey, it took me 5 months to walk pain free after the surgery, 1 year to be back at sport, 2 years to be back at lifting weights and it is now 4 years since the surgery. I now work 50+ hours a week as a physiotherapist in two busy and exciting sports related clinics. I work every weekend as a professional magician and I am back to running, playing sport and enjoying my mobility. No two “disc” injuries are the same. Each person’s anatomy, past medical history, physical fitness, presenting symptoms and journey can be dramatically different and can be straight forwards or a litany of ups and downs. My journey would not have been successful if it wasn’t for the drive and determination to not be defined as someone with a “disc prolapse”. For me, it was an injury and injuries can be overcome and preventable if your plan out your journey and you keep pushing until you get there.
So remember if you’re on this journey, make sure you have everything you need to get there safely and give yourself time to heal and get strong.
So I wish you a happy and safe journey, call me if you get lost!
Ian Paul Knowles Bsc Hons MSK Physiotherapist