How I battle Degenerative Disc Disease by keeping active!

How I battle Degenerative Disc Disease by keeping active!

The journey…

Part of my real journey began back in May of 2012. I had always been fairly fit and active (having represented my County in Athletics during my teenage years), but I decided to get back into the gym and started work with a PT.  As we were building a training programme,  I was struggling massively with the correct range of motion and could barely do sit ups and any type of lower back work. He advised me to see my Doctor immediately.

Initially, my GP suspected that I might be suffering from rheumatoid arthritis in my sacroiliac joint, however after a number of blood tests and a consultation with the arthritis specialist, this was ruled out and I went to have an MRI scan.

After what felt like an eternity, I went back for the results of the scan and was incredibly shocked at the results. The Consultant informed me that I had degenerative disk disease in my lower spine. I had gone alone to this particular hospital appointment and didn’t really process what the Doctor was saying. I had no idea what this was, or what the implications of this were and left the hospital in shock. I was referred to a neurosurgeon.

This diagnosis (in August 2012) was particularly devastating to receive as my father had died the day before, following a short battle with cancer. As you can imagine, the physical and mental pain were incredibly difficult to deal with and I was due to start my teacher training in the September.

The few months leading up to Christmas that year, passed in a haze with a number of hospital appointments. No-one had really explained anything to me and I wasn’t sure what I was dealing with, other than chronic back pain. Eventually, I decided to go privately. This speeded everything up and I was advised to see a pain management specialist. During that consultation, she discussed various options and we decided that cortisone injections would be the best option to help manage the pain and have a better quality of life.

Five days later and I was in the theatre being sedated, whilst they performed the procedure. When I finally came round from the sedation, I was in severe pain, but was told to rest assured this was normal. That evening, I went home.

Three days passed, five days went by and a week later, when I unable to walk, I went back for an emergency appointment with the Neurosurgeon who sent me straight for another MRI scan. It was then confirmed that I had unfortunately contracted a spinal infection. A living nightmare. I was unable to walk for almost 8 weeks. Everything you take for granted (like being able to go to the loo or shower), suddenly became a huge ordeal. As the weeks went by, so did the consultations.

Then came the news: “Unfortunately Caithy, you’ll never run again or be able to participate in high impact sport. In fact, you shouldn’t even be carrying a heavy handbag.” I left the room, beyond distraught and unable to comprehend the words. During follow up appointments, we discussed the option of spinal fusion surgery, but with only a 40% chance that this would be successfully, we decided it wouldn’t be the most ideal option.
After months of intense physiotherapy, I started to build my core up and was able to walk again but the pain sent me into a spiral of anxiety and depression.

Life was quite bleak for a while and teacher training was incredibly stressful, which only aggravated the spinal pain further and thus the mind.

The next year also passed in a blur and I continued with physio and also bought an exercise bike for home.

What is Degenerative Disc Disease?

What is it? What does it mean? What are the symptoms? How can you manage the pain?

These are just some of the questions that I aim to answer throughout this blog post, by sharing my own personal experience and journey of living with this disease.

According to Wikipedia, Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a medical term used to described the natural breakdown of an intervertebral disc of the spine. As discs weaken and lose water, they begin to collapse. This can result in pressure being put on the nerves in the spinal column, causing severe pain and weakness.

While not always symptomatic, DDD can cause acute or chronic low back or neck pain as well as nerve pain depending on the location of the affected disc and the amount of pressure it places on the surrounding nerve roots.

The typical radiographic findings in DDD are black discs, disc space narrowing, vacuum disc, end plate sclerosis, and osteophyte formation.[1][2]

DDD can greatly affect quality of life. Disc degeneration is a disease of micro/macro trauma and of aging, and though for most people is not a problem, in certain individuals a degenerated disc can cause severe chronic pain if left untreated.

How keeping active through running can help manage the pain:

In 2014, I started taking lots of long walks down the river to help with the grief and also because I find water very soothing for the mind. I decided to try and run, as an outlet for the grief. I managed 30 seconds, but the pain was too intense, however I felt determined. Everyday after teaching, I would pull on the trainers and get down to the river. Walk some and run some, measuring my progress by counting from one lamppost to another

Many days would end in tears because the pain was too intense, but I kept running to help heal me physically and mentally. The endorphins that running produces eventually start to act as a natural painkiller. I’m hoping that in the future, I’ll no longer have to take morphine on a daily basis.

Fast forward and last year (2016), I completed my first competitive 10k race on my Father’s birthday in April (44.59) and the Manchester 10k (45.00) raising £500 for the hospice who nursed my Dad. I have since completed the Manchester half marathon in 1. 37 and managed to run 14 races in 14 months! I’m currently training to run my first marathon in Limassol  with the Breath Unity Team in March 2018!

How has this been possible?

  • Positive mindset is everything in situations like these. You have to convince the mind and the body will then follow.
  • Take baby steps and set small realistic goals for example build up to 5k in 4 weeks.
  • Nourish your body. Nutrition is everything when you have an already fragile body. Fresh turmeric is great for helping pain and inflammation.
  • Patience is key. It has taken me almost 5 years to reach this point. Great things take time!

Set a goal, smash it, set a bigger goal!

Meeting the Orthopedic Research Team

Last month, I travelled to London to meet Arash and Kaveh from the OR Team who have been of great support to me over the past 6 months. We spent the day discussing the silent disability and the quality of life for people who suffer from what can quite often be a debilitating disease. In the afternoon, we went to meet Dr Arash Aframian for biometric gait analysis in the lab at Charing Cross Hospital. I was mesmerised by the wealth of knowledge that the team had and more than anything, the passion they have for helping people to try and lead a pain free life. The team are constantly conducting pioneering research using innovative technology in the hope that one day there might be solutions other than spinal surgery.

As we expected, one of my legs does compensate for pain in my spine, but Enertor insoles massively help to reduce the impact on landing and the ‘with’ and ‘without’ results showed that the support provided by the insoles has become invaluable to my running journey.

I’m honoured to have become an ambassador for the charity and I’m looking forward to work closely in the hope that others will be inspired and motivated that keeping active can be one of the greatest ways to relieve pain.

Biometric analysis at Charing Cross hospital

Capturing some of the data from pioneering gait analysis

I’m taking my passion for running to new levels now and have recently become a qualified running coach. I’m currently working on writing and constructing running plans that will help guide beginners to winners! Keep a look out on social media!

You’ve got to crawl before you can walk and you’ve got to walk before you can run! It’s been a very real saying and even as I write this, I am wearing my back brace!

It can be hard to battle physical pain on a daily basis, but never give up and as always, any questions, just shout!

Caithy x

Sharing the journey in the hope that it will help others.


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