Please help me avoid further injuring myself
November 15, 2016 11:18 AM   Subscribe

YANMD - but my doctor thinks I may have a slipped disc. If you are active, into fitness, running, strength training, etc, how do you manage the associated aches and pains and avoid aggravating things? What can I do now to (hopefully) nip this in the bud, but still enjoy exercise?

[may be tl;dr] On Labor Day, I think I incurred a strain in my right calf (I say “think” because admittedly I tried to nurse it on my own). My symptoms seemed very typical for a 1-2 degree strain - I can pinpoint the moment, my calf was very tender in a specific area, and it was painful to walk. Once I began to resume and ease back into activity, I began to experience a variety of other pain (and stiffness, some instability) on my right leg, mostly on the back & sides - from calf, back/side of knee, hamstring, glute, sometimes all at once and sometimes bits and pieces - I thought maybe this was due to different muscles compensating for whatever happened to my calf.

Last week I incurred a different round of pain at the very end of a run, not as bad as whatever happened to my calf on labor day, but still hindering activity. Went to the orthopedist, who thinks I’m dealing with a slipped disc issue. So he put me on prescription anti-inflammatory meds for a few weeks to see if that helps, before pursuing other options.

I love exercises and fitness! I tend to run 3x a week, and have a rotation of zumba, other HIIT classes, Barre, light yoga, Bodypump, and some other general gym stuff with a mix of cardio/strength/low-impact.

I’m trying to figure out what would be good or bad if this is in fact a slipped disc issue - I don’t really experience any back pain.

The doc said to limit things like weighted squats or weighted back exercises (even though I don’t experience any pain when doing those). And that I should be fine relying on walking, the elliptical, and bike for now, slowly easing back into things. What other things should I watch out for in the land of fitness and exercise, where I don’t experience pain during the actual activity - but may make things worse later? What other things should I work on and strengthen to mitigate problems?

Apologies if this is long and jumbled - this is new territory for me! If you've experienced a slipped disc and are an active person, I would appreciate any guidance going forward.
posted by raztaj to Health & Fitness (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm at work, on my phone, so apologies if this is rushed and disorganized: I have disk issues which are flaring up right now. I suggest looking this up on YouTube. Trying searching not only slipped or bulging (or herniated) disk, but also sciatica or even piriformis syndrome. (Piriformis syndrome causes similar symptoms as a disk pushing on the sciatic nerve, and the exercises can be helpful regardless of the cause.) There are lots of videos explaining what's going on when you have a slipped disk, and stretches and exercises that can help, and ones to avoid. I found videos by both physical therapists and personal trainers helpful. I found the chiropractors to be much sketchier.

Acute disk problems like you seem to be experiencing often clear up within a few weeks. (For me, even within days, but each episode seems to last longer - but hopefully not now that I'm developing better habits.)

More specifically, if you watch explanations of what a slipped or bulging disk is - I'll try to come back with some links - I think it makes sense that exercises involving bending forward should be avoided, especially ones involving extra weight. Stretching is very helpful to me, especially through the hips. Also try adjusting how you sleep - a rolled up towel or special roll pillow supporting your lumbar spine can really speed healing and prevent further problems.
posted by catatethebird at 11:50 AM on November 15, 2016

is your orthopedist connected to a gym or sports clinic, or otherwise "into" exercise? because if not, in my experience, they don't understand what you want and are not going to be much help. i've got better, more practical help when using a sports clinic (am lucky enough to have one nearby with everything, from doctors to mri machines).
posted by andrewcooke at 12:18 PM on November 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sounds like sciatica. It seems like you have been making it worse since the first "calf pain". That is how I've observed it in me: the pain spreads up from my calf toward my lower back as the degree of nerve compression increases. Numbness and and loss of motor control are serious symptoms, and indicate that things are getting worse.

Drop the Bodypump exercises that compress your spine: no more weight work with your upper body if you are standing on your own two feet. Running jolts your spine, compared to walking or walking-speed climbing. Don't bounce when you stretch. Bicycles are actually kind of hard on your spine.

You must maintain your muscle tone from your hips to your shoulders, because these muscles maintain your spinal support. Steady physical activity *every day* is better than "tending" toward three times a week (which I read as "feels good if I run three times a week"). Exercises that extend the spine, like weight machine upper body work, or swimming, can relieve compression.

Your prescription anti-inflammatory medications (600 mg Ibuprofen, perhaps?) are to get your across the acute injury phase. You could be somewhat injured for months, and be forewarned: your disks don't "heal" the way your muscles do. I've gleaned your age from your previous answers, and you might be seeing the relatively natural decline that comes with age in the resilience and toughness in your spine.

You can manage it by being observant.
posted by the Real Dan at 12:24 PM on November 15, 2016

I was an avid weightlifter until I was hit with mystery back issues a couple of years ago. You're right to pay attention to all the tissue surrounding the suspected problem area. Learn from my mistakes:

DO use an orthopedist connected with a sports medicine clinic
DO go to physical therapy if your symptoms don't clear up on the anti-inflammatory
DON'T load your back, even if it feels fine while doing it
DO keep doing things that strengthen the muscles and tissue around your disc, like glute work, hip mobility, etc.
DO consider a standing desk, but DON'T stand all day if you have back issues; alternate your position
DO consider yoga for stretching and strengthening your muscles, especially those around your back
DON'T do yoga poses that hurt your back
DO consider easing off the running, and any high-impact cardio, if your slipped disc is verified

I have spondylolisthesis (slipped/dislocated vertebra), and it took two years to diagnose it and to understand the hip bursitis, the hip pain, the glute weakness all come from trying to compensate for that abnormality. Today, my trainer doesn't allow me to do squats, and I no longer lift my bodyweight, but I can lift to keep strong. And I can do low- or no-impact cardio and yoga.

My biggest challenge now is that, since I'm a 47 year-old woman with this wonky back, recovery from little setbacks takes a really long time. Long drive? That's a really sore hip that'll keep me from deadlifts because I have to spend today working on hip mobility. Sat in a managers' retreat most of the day? I need to ice my back--not because it hurts, but because the swelling there makes my hip hurt. Traveling internationally and walking all day? I have to take frequent breaks since the tendons in the front of my hips tighten up with too much repetition; they're so busy compensating for my stupid back.

Having been so active before, this is hard for me. Be patient with yourself.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 12:43 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

The technical term is a "herniated disc." The disk ruptures to some extent, reducing elasticity and cushioning, and the contents of the disk "bulge" out, impacting a nerve. Over time the disc will heal and the pain may go away as the nerve is no longer pinched etc.

My wife had this issue for years (she's in her late 40s) until one serious episode left her screaming in pain. She received some serious painkillers and spent two months prone on the couch.

What has helped my wife is exercise, notably weight training and strength training, and core exercises. She also took up jogging. Walking also helps.

However, those are more intermediate to long-term fixes. This is a chronic condition that will occur again and again.

What you need to do immediately is to avoid lifting heavy objects. You need to avoid standing for prolonged periods of time. You need to avoid *sitting* for prolonged periods of time.

Most of all, you need to rest, in order to give the disc time to recover and stop swelling.

In a couple of weeks I would suggest taking up swimming. Swimming is a no-impact way to build up your core. The short walk to the pool should probably help.

Losing weight will also help, too.

My wife's episodes have not come back, although she will experience back pain and numbness in her toes during her period.

Good luck.
posted by My Dad at 12:47 PM on November 15, 2016

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