As a disclaimer, I am not a doctor nor do I play one on the internet. This is my first hand story of my microdiscectomy recovery sprinkled in with what helped me in hopes that it helps you. Use your best judgment and always err on the side of caution.
As many of you know at nauseam, I had a microdiscectomy for a herniated disc (L4-L5) a little under 2 years go now. A 7mm piece (about the width of your pinky) of my disc removed which was pressing against the nerve. It’s about as fun as you think it would be.
My goal with this post is to help to fill in the gaps between what the doctors tell you and what actually happens. Unfortunately, all the schooling and specializing in the world doesn’t mean they know the struggle of recovery.
I’m not bitter, I thankfully had a working knowledge of muscles and movement and the will to not let this disrupt what I want to do in life. I was set up better than most going into the surgery.
I would consider my recovery to go relatively smooth. There were hiccups when I tested my boundaries. At least now I know how to remedy these hiccups. One of the hiccups was doing sit-ups. After doing 1 set of 10 my lower back blew up like a balloon. Needless to say I found alternatives to the sit-up.
There are still some movements that scare me, like the back squat. The thought of back loading my spine with weight still scares the bejesus out of me. I constantly have flashbacks of the injury when I try to squat.
What to expect for a successful recovery:
Immediately Post Surgery to 1 Week
When you wake up, expect to not feel anything. That’s the massive quantities of drugs they pumped through you. Don’t get too excited.
Once those wear off the residual nerve pain comes back. The back is healed but the nerve still needs to recoup from having the disc pressed against it. The pain memory in the nerve is still there.
I thought I was good after the drugs wore off because I was laying down. It felt like I was Wolverine and miraculously healed at 8 hours post surgery.
I was mistaken. When I tried to stand the pain was worse than before surgery. I called the nurse for the meds. Don’t be a hero or delusional like me. If you need them (and you will) just take them.
When you get home don’t expect to do much. I considered walking to the end of my driveway a successful day and that was only allowed on the meds.
Recognize the little victories, this will keep you from getting depressed.
Most of your days will consist of sleeping and doped up on narcotic pain meds. The body needs to recover, let it. Pop in some movies, read, play video games. Keep your mind busy in between being comatose.
Try a couple of times a day to walk as far as you can. If that is to the fridge, then so be it. Try to walk as much as your pain will let you. This will help get the muscles firing in your back and helps limit the scar tissue.
Invest in a cane with 4 legs. CVS has them for $20-$30. The 4 legs are more stable than the traditional straight cane. Use this to maneuver, and stabilize yourself. Without it I couldn’t get off the couch or the toilet. How’s that for a visual, let it sink in a little.
Try to work yourself off the meds as soon as you can. These are powerful narcotics. Five days after my surgery was my birthday and my family came up to take me out for dinner. As you might have guessed I was not the life of the party because I was high as hell from the meds. Midway through the meal I had to leave because I felt nauseous. Yeah 31st birthday! That was the last day I took them.
2 Weeks Post Surgery
As the days progress you should feel better and better. The pain is still there during certain movements but it is manageable. For me the pain was there when trying to stand and if I tried to squat down to pick something up. Putting my socks on was tough. I would have to contort my leg like a gymnast while laying on the bed. In hindsight I must have looked so pitiful.
Take walks and try to improve each time within reason. I would take my dog (an 8 lb monster) for 2 walks a day. In the morning and in the evening, weather permitting. To this day he still gets excited when I put my socks on.
In between the walks, I would switch between sitting and laying down. Sitting was a pain in the ass, literally. Everything gets flexed (hamstrings, hip flexors) which pulls on the lower back.
Remember, focus on the small victories.
Progress only as fast as your back allows while not on any meds. The meds mask the pain so you don’t know when you’ve gone too far.
1 Month Post Surgery
After 1 month I was able to go back to work and start physical therapy. I started off working ½ days per request of my doctor. Which was fine by me. I personally really enjoyed the time off and was in no hurry to get back. I taught myself C++ coding (very limited, but something I always wanted to do), I read, and I got the gears turning for this website.
My work thought computer work was the best for me, so I was sitting most of the 4 hours I was there. I would walk around often. My production suffered a little but my health was more important.
Physical therapy (PT) was an eye opening experience. Most of the time I would leave there sweating from doing stretches or core stabilization exercises. The next day I would be in pain but I knew it was for the best. I would do my stretches and core exercises in the morning and at night everyday. This was my first step to my Adrian Peterson ACL type recovery.
I continued to push myself as far as I could and then got adequate rest to help the recovery. There were some hiccups and some days were worse than others but I kept my eye on the prize and kept going.
Invest in a foam roller. My PT recommended it and it helps loosen your hips and groin quickly. It hurts like a deep tissue message but the benefits far out weigh the immediate pain.
2 Months Post Surgery
After 1 month of PT, I was given the green light to go back to the gym. This was Christmas in July!
My surgeon told me that by 2 months post surgery, I would be back to my normal self. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. I still had residual pain in my leg (which was light years better than before) and I still couldn’t move like I had prior to the injury. But that was all mute point because I was in the gym now and it was up to me to get back to “my normal”.
The first time back at the gym was a humbling experience. I picked up a 25lb dumbbell and immediately put it down because it was too heavy. It was a severe case of “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” I then proceeded to go do my stretches while crying a little on the inside.
For the 1st month back at the gym I would do 5-6 exercises to see what I could do and what hurt. I kept the reps around 10-12 for 3-4 sets.
I found that getting off a flat bench proved to be a task and a half without twisting or curling my spine. The first time I tried to get up, a pain shot down my leg and I thought I was stuck. I must have looked like a turtle on his back. I had to shift my hips and my torso to the side and push myself up with an arm. It was sad.
I always kept in my mind that this would be a process. The delusions of hitting the weights right away was long gone based on what I had gone through in the first couple of months. This kept my spirits high and I just kept focusing on progressing within my limitations.
After about a month, I had a good idea what I was capable of. This is when it was time to start building myself up again. Since I had the strength of a little girl, I would use that to my advantage and get the most bang for my buck. Light weight and focus on time under tension and volume, with a heavy focus on core and more specifically lower back strength.
I started German Volume Training (See my post on German Volume Training) to increase my strength and gain back some of the muscle that I lost. I would go for 10 reps for 5 sets using a 3-0-2 cadence focusing on my form (I wanted textbook form). That means I would lower the weight for 3 sec and then take 2 sec to raise it again. I stuck to free weights so it was all me lifting the weights with the exception of the leg press.
I didn’t have the lower back strength to deadlift any weight that would do anything for my legs and squats were out of the question. Machines have their place, but I needed to get stronger and free weights were the answer.
For core strength I focused on planks (front and side), the deadbug exercise, leg raises and working on unstable surfaces (Bosu Ball shoulder press for example). I kept the reps around 12-15 for the deadbug and leg raises and would go for 1 minute on the planks.
PT showed me that my biggest problem was my tight and weak hip flexors and hamstrings need to be stronger if I wanted to get back to normal. So for lower back strength I used good mornings, back extensions and single leg deadlifts. All these movements are hip dominate which means more hip gainz.
Initially I kept the reps high (12-15) but after I got more confidence I went with 5-6 reps per set. If I kept at the 12-15 rep range the weight wouldn’t be enough to get me stronger like the 5-6 range would. By using the 8-12 rep range I would have developed a thicker back, and I wanted a skinny waist.
I kept this up for 3-4 months, slowly working my way up in weight. There were setbacks and times when I pushed too far. I spent weekends on the couch icing my lower back because was swollen.
1 Year Post Surgery and Beyond
I still didn’t have the confidence in my back like I though I would and there was still pain doing certain movements. So I started dabbling with really pushing my limits because that seemed like a natural transition. That’s when I started deadlifting everyday (Working up to a 1RM) and added 2-3 days of walking lunges for 10 minutes for about a month. This was an addition to my normal workouts. After a couple of weeks of doing that I felt amazing! It was like I was finally back to old Dave! (This was on the 1 year anniversary)
Once the pain went away I stopped deadlifting everyday and went to twice a week.
In November 2015 (18 months post surgery) I started deadlifting everyday again after experiencing more uncomfortable pain from sitting. Since then my world has changed again. I’m stronger than I have ever been. Most of all, the fear is gone. Old Dave is back!
Check out the Deadlift Everyday Workout
Almost 2 years out of surgery and I still wake up stiff some mornings especially when it’s cold. Sitting for too long or sleeping on a soft mattress bothers me. But I learned how to manage it. I’ll take walks everyday at work every hour or so to the opposite end of the building or go to the bathroom further from my desk.
Stretching and foam rolling have become staples in my life. At least 4-5 days a week I will do both. Sometimes one and not the other depending on how I feel. I’ll foam roll my hips, hamstrings and lower back to get the kinks out.
I’ll dial back the intensity of workouts based on how my back feels. No more do I push it to the brink to support my ego. I am not the machine I once thought I was.
People going through the surgery or thinking about it, I don’t want you to give up or think your life is forever altered. Grab recovery by the balls and don’t give up. There will be obstacles, you will feel pain. Keep your eye on the prize, be patient and keep your head up. The worst thing you can do is let this sidetrack your life. This a mere speed bump into creating a new better you. It’s a long painful process but it teaches you a lot about yourself and your capabilities.
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