Going through back surgery at age 20

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I was the typical 20 year old athlete enjoying the perks of playing continuous sports and being active at any moment I could. For me the first sense of pain I felt I compared to back stiffness I routinely got during high school basketball. One morning in mid-May, I was awoken by a sharp pain in my back, unable to sit up or get out of bed. I thought nothing of it, threw on an icy hot patch and headed on with my day of disc golf and hiking. 

Something was different though and in the back of my mind I knew this wasn’t the same stiffness. I was gingerly walking slowly crouching time after time to pick up my disk and time and time again the pain grew more and more.

I decided to schedule some appointments with the local chiropractor, but after 4 visits still the pain level remained, and only had gotten more severe.

After suffering for a couple weeks with little relief from taking Advil, or Aleve, I knew I at least had to see the family doctor. He did the obvious thing ordering x-rays (which at the time I wasn’t sure would be helpful) but anything at this point had to be beneficial. Of course the x-rays were negative, so the doctor decided to put me on 3 separate steroid pills to reduce the pain. At this point the pain from the back had moved primarily into my butt and only those of us who have experienced a herniated disk can relate to the uncomfortableness that came with. 

The doctor order me to see a physical therapist who happened to be someone I had visited often from previous injuries in high school sports. She checked me out and immediately said if she had to bet I had a herniated disk based on the a couple simple tests they ran (slump test being the one I remember off the top of my head). 

At this point now in early July the pain is to the back of my hamstring and my knee and making it very uncomfortable to even put pressure on the left side of my body. With little help from the steroids given by the doctor, I was sent to a specialist to get MRI and get a second opinion.

The MRI showed I had a minimal herniation at my L3/L4, and a mild herniation at me L4/L5. Being 20 years old, no doctor wanted to do surgery on me without all the other alternatives taken prior. I was sent to a sports orthopedic facility and given two rounds of Lumbar epidural steroid injections at my L4/L5 area. Those had to be done a month apart from each other and if I recall correctly the second one was done in the middle of October. 

Frustration had taken the best of me, I was practically lugging around my left leg as I couldnt even straighten it anymore and any pressure on that side sent a shooting pain to the bottom of my left foot. Early January, I was finally able to see an orthopedic surgeon who was willing to take the next step and do surgery. Of course after looking at my MRI, he turns to me and says "it looks like you have the back of a 60 year old" to add insult to injury. 

Being in college I was just ending my winter break and the first chance for surgery was in mid-February, right as my first round of exams were coming. Many people questioned me at this point asking why I didn’t take the earliest possible surgery date, but my view was, I had dealt with the pain so long that by this point I could even remember what my leg used to feel like. Why throw away an entire semester of school for 2 weeks earlier?! Instead I waited two more weeks to get the back surgery till spring break allowing me to get the time I needed to lay flat following the surgery.


On March 6th, 2015 I finally went under the knife and had my microdiscectomy. After the surgery I recall the doctor making a comment that my disk was herniated much more severely than expected (my MRI had been done back in August) so 8 month prior... DUH it had gotten worse. But at this point any relief was better then what it was before.

The following morning I felt no pain down the leg, walking was a struggle and uncomfortable but I was free from ever dealing with that pain again… or I thought. After a couple days in and out the pain came though my sciatic nerve. But never to the point of what it was before.

Fast forward a slow recovery period with many weeks laying on my back flat whenever I could find time outside of class. The pain in my butt remained to slowly getting better. Physical therapy proceeded with many appointments working on the pain and strengthening my core which I did find to help significantly but there was always some pain in doing the exercises.

By mid-September I was fully cleared to resume activities, obviously with precaution not to go lift 100 pound box right away. I worked my way into light jogging, avoided jumping and began stretching to loosen all those muscles I hadn’t used in over a year. It has been a long process and one I feel is yet to be over. Sitting here today, I consider myself to be at 90% or in the general area. I still have nerve pain in my back area and when certain movements are done it shoots down my hamstring momentarily before going away. Im definitely not at 100% but I am able to do anything I want (basketball, golfing, snowboarding, etc) to my comfort level. I still haven’t began lifting more than moderate amounts of weight as I don’t feel ready but im slowly getting there.

The purpose of this blog was for others in that situation who have done countless number of hours on internet searches trying to figure out if pain after was normal, IT IS, and no two cases are alike no matter how similar they sound. I was always told that the nerve will take at least as long as it was compressed for it to heal. In my case that was almost a year….. i.e. more than likely ill have permanent nerve damage. But im still optimistic that one of these days the pain will subside completely.

Whatever your case/experience has been like, don’t let it get the best of you. Now a 21 yearodl going on 22 in a couple days, I have my whole life of adventure left ahead of me. More than likely ill be back under the knife getting the surgery again I was told but im not going to let that stop me from being active and living the life-style I want to. Best of luck in your recovery… unfortunately everybody reading this has probably gone through the same experience.

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  • Posted

    Interesting read and good luck for the future.i say interesting because what i'm interested in is the thing with still having nerve pain after surgery that should have removed that pain.I had c6/c7 discectomy decompression & fusion operation 3 weeks ago,When i came round from the op the burning pain in my right arm had gone but some days recently it's there again.If the operation is partly to remove any pressure on the nerve why does it still feel sometimes like there is pressure still? I hope it's like you say trussell, that the nerve takes time to recover.My nerve was compressed for 4 months befoe the operation so maybe that means it will take another 4 months to recover? Maybe and hopefully in 4 months time it will have recovered.The pain isn't as bad as it was before the operation and some days there's no nerve pain at all. but when there is pain it's a burning sensation in right arm.

    I did have sciatic problems when i was 22 (i'm now 47) but the problem wasn't a disc but actually my pelvis had gone leaning to one side and was pressing on nerves leading to my right leg.A few chiropractic sessions fixed my pelvis but i think i did have nerve pains down my right leg for quite a long time afterwards,i'm not sure now. it's so many years ago but thinking about it i think there definitely was some nerve pain after i was fixed but that pain did eventually dissappear so there's hope that my nerve pain in my right arm will eventually go too.

    Good luck to you trussell and everyone else out there.

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  • Posted

    I think the positivity in the 20 year old blog is fantastic. I too went through a lamaectomy in June last year (disc bulge at t10-11 compressing spinal cord) and I still have nerve issue as before the op. in both thighs (intense burning) and numbness in right foot, which according to my last MRI shows "higer spinal cord change)- probably permanent nerve damage. I too as a sporty type (albeit alot older than 22!) have just bulit my fitness back up- I now have issues with L4/L5.  to be further investigated.

    I have just bought a book a must for  all back suffers called The Back Mechanic by world renown back specialist by Stuart Mc Gill (on Amazon)- get t.

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  • Posted

    Thank you for your message and your inspiration. My 16 year old daughter has undergone two partial discectomy/laminectomy surgeries in a six-month timeframe, after herniating her L4/L5 disc at age 14. She, too, was very athletic, playing soccer and tennis. For 2 years we tried everything - steriod injections, physical therapy, etc. but her pain got progressively worse. The sciatica kicked in around January 2015 down her right leg. The steriod injections stopped working. Doing "normal" things, such as sitting, became increasingly difficult, which of course was a challenge for a high school student expected to sit for several hours a day. After getting a second opinion we finally decided to do surgery in October 2015 - her first discectomy/laminectomy. Unfortunately, the disc re-herniated almost immediately and was even worse than before, causing her sciatica to reach new levels of pain. Two steriod injections within a 2-month span brought no relief. Because her surgeon was unresponsive about the re-herniation, we sought help elsewhere, and she ultimately had a second partial discectomy/laminectory in March 2016.This surgeon said the disc is just a bad disc, that much was apparent upon seeing it. This has been a difficult journey, to watch my once-vibrant, athletic daughter be forced into a life of inactivity. It's been 5 weeks since her second surgery, and she is feeling better - certainly much better than after the first surgery. She can sit or stand for only short periods of time and there is pain, but a "better" pain - the type expected at this stage of recovery. She is doing physical therapy now and she knows that she must get strong and work on her core in order to regain her life. And she knows that one day she'll face spinal fusion ... but for now it is about getting strong and getting on with her life!  
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    • Posted

      Thanks for sharing. I too was very unresponseive to the spinal injections and my second one actually caused more pain then prior to the injection. Going through school and working was a task to say the least as anything over 20 minutes of sitting was extremely uncomfortbale nevermind having to go for 7-9 hour days. Hopefully she doesnt have to deal with the perminent nerve damage that i currently seem to being going through, I wouldnt wish it upon anybody but like i mentioned anything is better then the pain felt before the surgery. I wish her the best in her recovery as i know its a loooong process. I wish hera  fully recovery and hopefully the ability to get back to high school sports.
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