Why do I keep moaning about my back?

If you’ve spent any time in person with me in the last month or two, you’ll know that I’ve barely shut up about my back hurting.

If you follow me on twitter or facebook, you might have noticed the occasional moan, or at least mentions of physio, hospital trips and pain meds.

This post is my way of drawing a line under all of this. I’ll explain what’s wrong with me, and then shut up about it. Really. I promise.

I have degenerative disc disease.

Two of the discs (discs are the padded sacks that go between the bones in your spine) in my lower back are deteriorating. The second-from-bottom one is completely knackered, the bottom one isn’t as bad but is clearly heading down the same path.

I was shown the MRI scan of my back, and it’s pretty obvious once someone explained what to look for. The rest of the discs show up in the scan image as thick white pads. The bottom two are thin, dark and grey.

There’s no cure for this, and there’s no way to repair them.


This is all sounding a bit depressing, isn’t it? Particularly with that fun name of “degenerative disc disease”.

But there is good news.

It isn’t ultimately threatening. In other words, it’s not going to shorten my life, and it’s not going to result in paralysis or anything properly scary like that.

“The term ‘degenerative disc disease’ sounds like a progressive, very threatening condition. However this condition is not strictly degenerative and is not really a disease.”

What is degenerative disc disease?

Medics really suck at naming things, don’t they?

What is happening to my discs now happens to all of us in old age. It’s a natural result of aging. It kinda sucks that mine are doing this earlier, at a younger age than they should, but I’ve always been an early adopter.

It’s unlikely to be due to damage that I’ve caused, or the result of injury or illness. I was probably genertically predestined for this.

Over time, these two discs will continue to deteriorate, until the point where they’re completely gone. The vertebrae either side will end up touching, bone on bone. Over time, they will knit together to form a single larger piece.

I don’t know how long this will take. It could be weeks or months, it might be a year or more.

I’ve been offered surgery.

The degenerating discs are surgically removed, and they put a bone graft in it’s place to manually start the process of fusing the bones together.

It’s not a fix. It’s essentially a shortcut. It’s doing surgically now what my body is going to do naturally over time.

In code-monkey terms, I’m thinking of it as a NOOP. If you could jump forward ten years, and compare what I’ll be like if I have the operation vs if I don’t have the operation, there’ll be essentially no difference.

The benefit is that I get to avoid some pain in the meantime. Because this does really hurt. A lot. It’s really massively fucking painful. It makes me a properly grumpy sod, and makes concentration difficult. Because it hurts. Have I covered the hurting bit enough? :-)

The downside is that the operation isn’t guaranteed to work. For 65% of patients, it’s successful – you get to skip to the end and avoid what could potentially be many months of pain. For 30% of patients, it doesn’t help. For 5% of patients, there are complications that make things worse.

That’s not the best odds. Find twenty people in my condition. If they all have the operation, one of them will end up regretting it. Eek.

Plus it’s a major operation. The recovery time is quite long. I’d be unable to return to work for a minimum of six weeks, possibly as long as three months. That would suck.

The alternative is I just let nature take it’s course.

It’ll hurt, but I’m told that this will wax and wane as things progress. There will be good weeks and bad weeks. And there are things I can do to manage the pain as this happens:

Losing some weight – the less weight that my spine has to support, the less pressure that gets put on the joint. So I’ve gotta learn to avoid the vending machines at work!

Strengthening my core muscles – the more of my weight that my muscles support, the less my spine needs to do. Lots of swimming and stretching and walking. Every day.
I hear pilates is good, too. And I could carry on with physio to help build up muscles.

Posture – learning to sit and stand and bend in a way that reduces the load on my lower back. No more slouching. And massively reducing the amount of time I spend sitting is important. I’ve switched to a standing desk for work, but I’ll probably write about that another time, as it’s kind of interesting.

More pain medication. Screw being a hero – bring on the pills. If this process is going to hurt like hell, there are a variety of pills that will help take the edge off, and anti-inflammatories that will help calm things down.

"I'm not that kind of Doctor!"

Decisions, decisions

I’m not sure which route I’m going to take yet. I’m sort of leaning towards the non-surgical route, but I’m still thinking it through.

Oh woe is me!

No, not at all.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a big deal. It’s not going to kill me. It’s not going to put me in a wheelchair. It’s not even going to stop me getting back into running eventually.

I have a lovely GP. I have very good private health insurance that meant I’ve been seen and diagnosed quicky, and covered the costs of all the physio and consultations and procedures I’ve had so far. I have a tolerant family who are doing so much for me, including kids who are happy to pick up stuff for me to save me having to bend too much. I have an employer who can afford to kit out my office with a ton of new expensive equipment to help me work more easily, and is understanding enough to give me the time I need to get myself sorted.

It’s a massive pain in the arse, and I’m fed up with it. But I know how lucky I am, and how much worse it could be. And I don’t even mean compared with everyone in the world ever – I know at least one person at Hursley whose back is in worse shape than mine.

So for now I’ll shut the hell up about it, because I’m starting to bore myself, let alone the rest of you who have to put up with me. :-)

One final thing. I have no medical knowledge or expertise and am relating my understanding of what I’ve been told about my particular situation. Please don’t use anything in here as medical advice!

4 Responses to “Why do I keep moaning about my back?”

  1. Lxs says:

    Truly sorry to hear of your plight. Never fun to love with pain nor discomfort on an ongoing basis.
    Thought to share a few thoughts, which hopefully is a little different to want you have heard from others…

    Neither the discs nor the bones have nerve sensitivity. Therefore the pain might arise from a change in articulation or muscle positioning. Your movement (automatic responses) might be improved by a Chiropractor realigning your back and/or a Physio strengthening your core. My wife – a chartered Physio – is a practitioner & instructor of APPI Pilates (=Physio based Pilates), which has granted positive experiences that permit me to recommend this course of activity to you!

    An anecdote to demonstrate the difference of just a few millimetres of articulation:
    In the case of pregnant ladies, before or after delivery they might complain of severe pain in their lower back. This is due to the natural rotation of their hip during this phase of pregnancy, and the millimetre movement is more than enough to bring about excruciating pain. A real pain in the back side! And yet, a few weeks later the hip shifts back into normal angle and the pain subsides and then goes away. During the early stages of pregnancy, appropriate exercises can help alleviate this discomfort – although is unlikely to prevent eventual pain.

    And to think women might put themselves through this experience several times………
    {thankfully they have loving partners to help look after them, and fetch blueberries and frozen yogurt at 3am}

    For you, yes it is painful, yes it is rather continuous – thankfully you are surrounded by loved ones to keep you preoccupied and enjoying family life! It is also great that you have access to top-notch treatment – together with supportive colleagues (well, hopefully sometimes supportive colleagues). Do keep up with your recommended physiotherapy, as this can help alleviate some of the discomfort and help with our posture. I found that I had greater ease of movement, enhanced posture, and less pain as a result of my physio care. Never been manhandled by a chiropractor, so cannot refer to personal experience.

    Now go enjoy your weekend to the fullest!

  2. dale says:

    Thanks very much for the comment – very kind, and given me some stuff to think about. Lots of options!

  3. Clive Jefferies says:

    I have had the same for about 5 years. I have lots if advice if you want it.

  4. dale says:

    Thanks, Clive! Yeah – any advice would be great.

    I’ve read a lot about this stuff over the last week and come across a lot of ideas – lumbar belts for support when I run, sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair for some of the day to improve core strength, different types of pilates, and lots more.

    But I’m still coming across new things worth trying and am absolutely interested to hear any more that you’ve found useful.

    Sorry to hear that you’ve had to put up with this for so long, and hope that you’re okay.

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