In her own words: living with sciatica
Susan, a 39-year-old emergency room nurse, lives in Arizona. When a herniated disk threatened her active lifestyle, she sought relief through minimally invasive spine surgery.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
I was playing tennis and went for a shot. The first thing I felt was a tremendous pain in my leg. Doctors thought I pulled my hamstring and suggested I rest it and apply ice. But it did not get better. The doctor had me try a knee brace and at one point supportive hose, which only made the pain worse because it compressed the nerve. Nothing took away the pain. It remained awful, even when I tried to rest. Eventually my foot went numb, and I started falling. I stopped seeing family and friends and went straight home after work. I'd cry driving home. It was just so painful. I wasn't assertive with the doctor, because I didn't want to be labeled as a complainer. About a month after the injury, my mother called the orthopedic surgeon and said something is really wrong; my daughter doesn't act like this.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
The doctor saw me again and this time, asked about back pain. I'm a nurse, so back pain is a given. I never put the two together. Until then, he hadn't either. He ordered an MRI, which showed the disk herniations. I finally had a diagnosis.
What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?
I had thought my leg was dying, that the blood flow was occluded. So when I found out it was a herniation, I was glad in a way. At least I knew what it was. But I also thought about all the people with back problems who never get better and have all these surgeries. I thought, "I'm too young for that." So I went through the gamut of what to do about it. It was my desire to figure out what was wrong and then be over it. Sciatica was horrible, the worst experience of my life. I still have pain now and again. But I'm living my life. There's never a promise of always feeling great. This experience has made me appreciate things more.
How is sciatica treated?
I tried everything. I had five epidural injections. The first was amazing. About five hours later, the pain was gone. But as soon as I went to work, the pain was back. The other epidurals never helped. The doctors gave me anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, pain pills. Nothing worked. Pain pills made me sleepy and nauseated, but the pain was still present. I tried relaxation tapes, massage, everything I could think of. But I wasn't getting better. And I needed something lasting. I knew what people go through with back pain, the failed surgeries, and the road many of them take. I was determined not to become an emergency room regular.
At that point, I started looking on the Internet and read about a doctor (Anthony T. Yeung, M.D.) doing the minimally invasive surgery. It turned out, my orthopedic surgeon had done a residency with this pioneering surgeon and encouraged me to see him, which I did. There was no hospital stay. I left with two little Band-Aids and no leg pain. Two days later, I was able to walk down the block. Before, it had been hard just to walk from the door to the car. One week after the surgery, I was able to walk for a half hour. I could do more and more. The people in the rehab unit were incredible. They taught me how to develop other muscles, like in the abdomen, to help where the back was weaker. I'm still doing the exercises.
Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to sciatica?
There are still some limits to what I can do. I'm not playing numerous sets of tennis followed by a swim, which was my usual routine. But I'm back on the courts and in the pool. I work out three or four times a week. When I wake up and my back feels tight, I stretch using an exercise ball. I'm very careful about lifting and maintaining good posture. I don't want this to return.
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
Does sciatica have any impact on your family?
I'm back doing things with my friends and family. That low point in my life has been followed by a lot of good things.
What advice would you give to anyone living with sciatica?
Bad things can happen, but it's best to fix it and move on. Find the least invasive way to take care of the problem. Don't dwell on the pain. Concentrate on all the great things you can do.