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A few months ago I thought I herniated a disc in my lower back, but it turns out the disc is just slightly bulging. Yay!

I went to a neurosurgeon who took at look at my MRI results and basically told me I can't do anything to make the situation better. No physical therapy, no drugs (except for pain relievers), no surgery, nothing can help. I can only wait it out and hope for the best, and there's still a chance that nothing will improve. He did tell me that the injury wasn't that bad at all, and to a degree he is right—I can walk, jog, play some casual sports. But nothing serious.

So three things:

1) Any ideas on improving the injury? I know the surgeon said I can't do anything and I know you guys aren't all doctors, but I appreciate any ideas I can look into.

2) How do I deal with this mentally? I was just told I can't do anything at all about this, nothing.

3) Any ideas for sports I can try to pick up? I have cycled before and thought about going back to it, maybe that.

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I injured my low back and groin while deadlifting as a young man. Had an MRI, inconclusive about the degree of herniation (hence it must be slight), but apparently there was damage to the casing of the disk. Have an intense "full" and "hot" feeling in my lower legs at times. Was very worried at first, because I did not know how to alleviate the symptoms when they arose, or how to prevent them from arising as often.

After two years of CHYRO and PT, and then four years of experimenting, I learned a few things. To the extent that our injuries were similar, perhaps they might help you as well.

1) PT is nice, especially at the beginning. Part of the problem with this sort of injury is that important nerves and muscles (and much more!) are all articulating in the region. Learning to identify (read: isolate), work, and relax the muscles in the region is useful.

2) A CHYRO suggested I get an inversion table. Inverting (and other kinds of stretching) seem to give me a lot of relief: in particular, by inverting, I am able to more completely relax the muscles and deload the other tissues in the region; I often feel near immediate relief.

I now use a 6 inch diameter hard foam back roll to accomplish the same kind of stretching (it's more portable; I travel with the thing in my suitcase). I have also used inversion boots with gym squat racks. I think the inversion table provides the most relaxing/complete stretch, but the roll could a cheap way to determine if this sort of stretch might help you.

3) Some CHYRO manipulations seem to make things worse. In particular, torque applied by way of the knees to twist/crack the lower back seemed increase rather than decrease my symptoms.

4) I bought better shoes and superfeet inserts. I got a 3 inch diameter hard foam back roll to put behind my back while sitting (forces better posture; I have a hard time remembering otherwise). I take standing breaks or use a standing desk frequently. I sleep on my back or stomach; I try to avoid spending any length of time laying on my side or, in general, with my pelvis tilted. These changes also seemed to help, though the benefit is certainly less than that provided by the stretching mentioned in #2.

Also, though I was not trying, I lost quite a bit of weight last year and that also seemed to noticeably improve things.

5) I actually just returned to power/olympic lifting. Most days I feel as though my back is getting even better; there have been a few days, however, where symptoms were worse than before I began lifting again. Jury is still out.

6) Random. When I have more than just a few drinks, my symptoms are sometimes worse the next day. I suspect this is simply because, after drinking, I do not sleep soundly and flatly on my back or stomach.

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  • This is a great answer, more detailed than the others. I'd also add that my pain increases if I consume foods that trigger inflammation in my body, and when I don't drink enough water. I try to get at least 2 quarts/litres of water in per day (ideally more), in addition to any other drinks/liquids I consume. Also, +1 for the traction/inversion. I do horizontal traction at my chiro's and it's been a lifesaver for me. – Shauna Dec 16 '14 at 17:13
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I herniated a disc ten years ago and it changed my life. In the long run for the better. I was 6'4 250 lbs with a bodyfat percentage well north of 20%. I was not healthy. I was playing a lot of baseball and the combination of the excess pressure on my midsection from being overweight and the wear and tear from excess rotation (swinging) was something my discs could no longer handle.

It forced me change my diet, train smarter and work on my flexibility. The fitness industry preaches to work on your core all the time, but it is the posterior chain that will save your back. I know this from experience. I spent a ton of time building up my abs and losing weight and never once thought about the muscles I could not see. After a year of suffering I enlisted the help of a physiotherapist and he pointed out that I had a flat butt, underdeveloped hamstrings and huge thighs. My body was far from symmetrical. So I went to work on these muscles and after only a couple of months my pain began to subside. Today I still have to watch what I do, but it is only intermittent discomfort from time to time.

I would recommend that you start exercising, If it hurts, then back off, but stay active. Focus on the things that you can do and don't worry about the things you can't. I may never be able to deadlift again, but life goes on. I can still train, golf and play baseball once a week.

In terms of sports, try swimming. It is a great total body workout, easy on the joints and I have found that it stretches my entire body out. I highly recommend it.

Good Luck

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    This is a good answer, but could probably be made better with some more specifics. ie - what exercises are good for building the posterior chain without too much risk to exacerbating the problem? What about things for those of us who don't have access to a pool or large body of water for swimming? – Shauna Dec 16 '14 at 17:15
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Granted, this is somewhat opinion based, but, I can relate to your situation, although, in a slightly more serious vein. I was a competitive bodybuilder for many years. Initially, I was diagnosed with a herniated disc, but, later diagnosed with a slightly more serious condition that ultimately required surgical intervention by a neurosurgeon. So, for your questions….

I was also told not to do anything. I think MDs tend to error on the side of caution. However, I had a good PT who impressed on me that with any back injury, it’s important to maintain a strong core and perform the stretching and flexibility exercises I learned for the rest of my life. It may sound like a burden, but, actually I benefit from it in many other ways. The most important take-away is to take your time and not rush it. Be conservative. Give it time to heal even if you feel great. I’d also suggest you get a second opinion. I did.

Mentally, at least in my case, there was a sense of loss. When you perform a sport or activity that you love for such a long time, and, you’re suddenly not able to any more, it can be frustrating. I learned to train smarter. I realized that I could not compete any longer, but, that didn’t mean I couldn’t still work out. It took a while, but, I learned what exercises/movements were contraindicated and avoided them while still reaping the benefit of a fitness lifestyle.

Lastly, faced with the same sort of thinking you’re currently experiencing, I decided I needed something that would both challenge me and provide a fitness benefit. I chose the sport of rowing. It may sound counterintuitive for someone with a back injury, but, contrary to most people’s understanding, rowing is a “pushing” activity (eg. leg drive) and not a “pulling” activity. Rowing can be performed year round both indoors and outdoors, on the water and off, and it provides not only an aerobic benefit, but, an anaerobic one as well. If you’re interested, I would point you to the Concept2 web site.

Whatever you decide to do, run it by your Doc. Good luck, and train smart!

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