Back again


Well… just as I thought I had healed my back, I’ve only gone and ‘popped’ a disc again.

About a year ago, shortly after I’d moved into my new home in Crail and while my mum was visiting, I got up off the sofa, felt a twang in my back, experienced an explosion of pain and dropped to the floor in agony.

It turns out that I had herniated the fifth lumber disc in my back, or L5 for short.

I returned to my physiotherapist in St Andrews, Clayton Hardisty, and I learned a lot about spinal discs over the next few weeks.

There’s a good article about herniated and bulging discs on Spine Universe.

He described a spinal disc as being like a core of a jelly-like/crab meat-like substance (the nucleus pulposis) surrounded by rings of rubber bands (the annulus fibrosis). And when the disc herniates, the rubber bands burst and the nucleus leaks out which can press on the nerves in the spine.

The therapy that my physio gave me, consisted largely of simple exercises to realign my spine and help coax the nucleus back into place to give the annulus fibrosis time to heal around it. A bit like when you squeeze too much toothpaste from the tube and then give it a squeeze in a different location to try to suck the toothpaste back in.

It was a long recovery. It took me about seven months before I could stand for any length of time with no pain. A gave cycling a go every couple of months but it wasn’t until early July that I returned without any discomfort, either that day or the next.

I was so encouraged. Time to get back on the bike, gently at first and get fit again.


A couple of weekends ago, I woke up feeling quite positive about my recovery process. Today was the day, I decided, that I would gently kick start my fitness.

But first, I needed to clean the house. I’d had my children for two weeks over the school holidays, the house was still in need of a deep clean and my seven loads of washing needed putting away.

Having vacuumed and mopped upstairs and down, I was moving the furniture back into place in my living room when I felt that familiar ‘pop’ in my back, the same explosion of pain and I dropped onto the sofa with a couple of loud expletives.

I knew exactly what I had done. But this time I knew what to do. I reached for the left-over diazepam and codeine in my medicine cupboard, applied ice packs and heat, and hobbled around the house using my mop as a walking stick, before a couple of walking poles arrived in the mail a few days later. I knew that I needed to keep moving and do the same swaying-and-holding-myself-to-the-side exercise.

For a while now, I’ve been using this pain assessment tool designed by Brendan Powell Smith.

Immediately following the injury, my pain levels were an uncomfortable 8 out of 10. Once the painkillers and muscle relaxants kicked in it dropped to a 6 or 7. By the time I saw the physio, three days into my exercises, it had dropped to a 4 or 5.

The difference between this time and last is that I knew what to do, had a ready-made rehabilitation plan in place and had the right medications to hand.

I saw an out-of-hours GP in St Andrews on the day after the injury who prescribed me more codeine and naproxen which appears to be the next level up from ibuprofen… and to which I appear to be allergic judging by my hands that looked a bit like bubble wrap the other day, covered in hives.

Last week, I got stuck sitting on my armchair; it took me 90 minutes to carefully wriggle myself off it, and a further 20 minutes to get up off the floor.

At the start of the week it was taking me around 20 minutes to put my socks and shoes on; yesterday, it took me less than two. I’m definitely making progress.

The mental challenge

As with many things in life, the biggest challenge isn’t the physical, it’s the mental.

I’ve been here before, I know what it involves. I can live with the months and months of dull pain.

But the biggest challenge is in my mind. It’s the feelings of self-doubt and fear. It’s the fear of pushing myself, the fear that if I do anything then I’ll put it out again. It’s the bouts of dark mood and depression that linger around chronic pain.

The last few weeks have been low but I am getting there. I suspect the naproxen hasn’t helped and since I’ve come off it I have felt brighter.

So, there we are… onwards and upwards. And look at the time, I need to go lean against a wall and do my exercises again.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Former Scrum master at Safeguard Global, Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

2 thoughts on “Back again”

  1. I feel your pain. Having also slipped a disc a few years ago I’m now getting sciatic pain on the other side. I’m terrified that another rupture is in the post but can’t stop life on the offchance, so I’ll just keep cycling and doing my physio and hope the back strengthens around the damage. Getting older sucks.

  2. Thanks Gary. I hope your cycling and physio works. I feel like I’ve slid down the snakes and ladders board. But the important thing is that I’m still playing, still trying to climb.

    As my mum tells me, old age doesn’t come itself.

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