I first had surgery on my lower back around the age of 18. I had spent over 12 months with symptoms which were gradually getting worse. I had a lot of lower back pain, but more worryingly I had a lot of nerve pain. This was like a dull ache down my left leg, as well as numbness and tingling down the left leg. This progressed to what we affectionately called my “camel leg”. I would take a step and lose function in that leg so it would drop but also kick out a bit – like you would imagine a camel doing.
The first surgery I had was what they call a microdiscectomy on my L5/S1 disc (lower back). While scary at the time it was quite simple and my recovery and rehab was straightforward. From then I had occasional chiropractic care and physiotherapy, I wasn’t winning marathons but I was functional.
Almost 10 years later at 20 weeks into my second pregnancy my back became a major issue once again. I couldn’t do imaging or take pain relief due to being pregnant, so it was pushed aside. Eventually after I gave birth, after a few months of trying to cope, I had an MRI which showed the same disc had broken down and bulged again. I was quickly referred to a surgeon who advised that surgery to fuse that level of the spine was needed.
I was shocked at first, I thought I would have another option, but it was indicated to me by my surgeon that even if I chose to do something less invasive now, it was likely I would need a fusion in the future. I really believed that this was my best chance at getting relief from my symptoms. With a new baby and a toddler keeping me busy it was a very difficult decision, but ultimately I felt that the little bub was only going to get bigger and heavier so I needed to be able to keep up.
Before the fusion, I researched what I could and I knew very clearly that I would have a long process of rehabilitation. I understood how the surgery would be done, but I couldn’t find any Australian data on how effective this procedure would be. It seemed to be on a case by case basis, so I felt that I had a lot on my side being still quite young and otherwise healthy. It was an issue localised to that disc, so the indicators were good.
I had the surgery when my daughter was four-and-a-half moths old and my son was three. I missed my daughter rolling over for the first time while I was in hospital.
I knew the procedure would be painful which brought some fear, but I was mostly terrified of being out of our home for the hospital stay while the kids were so young. It meant five days in hospital, as well as calling in favours from many, many family members to help at home for the following weeks.
The surgery I had involved using an implant to replace the disc. About three weeks post-surgery I felt a significant change in my nerve pain. Imaging showed that this implant had moved and my surgeon advised it would take another surgery to repair this. I was able to arrange help for the home again, but I was told this procedure would be a lot simpler with a shorter hospital stay. I was less scared going into this as I believed it wouldn’t be as severe, however when I came out of theatre I felt just as awful as I did the first time. My surgical site was the same size, the only difference being stitches instead of staples and I was kept in hospital for five days again. While the longer hospital stay was difficult, I suppose it did force me to recover instead of doing the usual mum-duties.
In total I have now had three operations on that same troublesome area. Unfortunately as time went on after the last surgery, I just wasn’t feeling relief from the nerve pain and symptoms down my left leg. These were also developing in my right leg. As of today, there is no single issue causing the nerve pain I experience, it is said to be a combination of compression from scar tissue and general inflammation which has no timeline on how, when or even if it will clear up. I still work relentlessly on the exercises prescribed by my physio, I am under the care of a pain specialist and I take various pain medications. I have also had injections to try and manage the nerve pain.
I am forever grateful to my wonderful husband who has had to take over a lot of our day to day life to keep our family running smoothly. It has impacted on both my and his work, as well as our finances and overall well being - but we keep working toward improvements. I am very grateful to all of the professionals who have, or still are treating me - I have no doubt that they have all done so to the best of their abilities.
It is easy as the patient to feel like nobody offers the full picture, as though each provider just ‘sells’ their own services, beliefs and techniques. The important part is to keep learning from everyone you see and to build a good understanding of your own condition. Unfortunately I haven’t gotten the result I had hoped for but the journey isn’t over yet.