Greg Park

My L5-S1 micro­discectomy experience

November 21, 2023

About three months ago, I had a microdiscectomy to repair the disc between my L5 and S1 vertebrae.

Before this surgery, I didn’t know anything about disc injuries or the discectomy procedure, so I’m sharing what I learned here. If you are considering this surgery or experiencing a similar injury, I hope this helps you.

Why get surgery?

Not everyone needs surgery, but my surgery was necessary. My disc had severely herniated (20mm) and ruptured such that the disc and disc fragments were seriously compressing the nerves in my spine.

This compression caused intense pain, numbness, muscular weakness, and other altered sensations everywhere between my lower back and right toes.

While the constant pain was obviously bad, the profound weakness in my right leg was the primary reason I opted for surgery.

Before surgery, I had slowly lost the ability to flex my right calf at all due to the nerve damage from the cord compression. This made walking difficult and running impossible. The longer I allowed the nerve to be compressed, the greater the risk that I would have permanent nerve damage and loss of mobility.

It’s possible that I could have resolved the disc injury through more conservative, non-surgical methods, but would they work quickly enough to avoid permanent nerve damage? I was doubtful because I had tried most of them for months while my condition continued to deteriorate.

By the time I opted for surgery, I could no longer perform many basic household tasks. Sleeping, sitting, housework, and lifting my baby or dog were all uncomfortable, laced with pain and anxiety. Exercise was a far-away dream. I could hardly concentrate during my work days. And as bad as it was, I feared it would only worsen.

After months of conservative treatment with no positive results, I had reached my limit. I wanted my life back. After consulting with three specialists, I scheduled my L5-S1 microdiscectomy.

My injury timeline

How did you injure your back?

I have no idea! I can’t point to any single event that caused the disc to herniate. One of the neurosurgeons who examined my MRI suggested that it may have happened slowly over time (based on the different shadings on the disc in the MRI).

I was an active runner, stretched daily, had a core exercise routine, alternated between sitting and standing throughout my workday, always tried to lift heavy objects with good form, etc. I’ll never know why this disc decided to give out on me. Shit happens, I guess.

What is microdiscectomy recovery like?

Restrictions: No bending, lifting, or twisting

I had strict restrictions for six weeks:

I was also advised to limit sitting for 10 minutes or less at a time.

I wasn’t ready for these restrictions. I knew there would be some restrictions, but I thought they would be for days, not weeks.

These restrictions make daily life harder but not impossible. See the tips and tricks below for some tools that helped me in this restricted state.

How I felt after surgery

Day 1

The actual surgery only took about an hour. I slept through the procedure and came home the same day!

I had some pain at the incision site, but it was nothing compared to the back pain I had been living with.

Week 1

Incision site pain peaked during the first 2-3 days and was mostly gone after a week.

Sciatic pain was completely gone after the surgery, but my nerve was highly active (pins and needles, numbness, altered sensations, etc.).

During week 1, I tried to walk briefly every hour, gradually increasing the distance each day. Day 1, I walked 500 steps. By day 7, I walked 8,000 steps (but only 500-1,000 steps at a time).

I felt very unsteady when walking, as if my core was made of gelatin. The more I walked, the better I felt.

Weeks 2-4

During this time, I tried to focus on consistently walking, learning to live with the post-op restrictions, and supporting my recovery by eating well and sleeping as well as possible.

I could flex my calf again! The muscles were weak, but I could feel them for the first time in months.

Incision pain was gone by this time.

My lower back and core were still very weak, and I would be exhausted after walking a mile or two.

I struggled with constant fears of reherniation during these weeks. I remember a friendly but big dog jumped on me during a neighborhood walk, and this gave me a serious jolt in my lower back that lasted for hours. It was fine by the next morning, but these minor events happened often.

I felt fragile. I was highly compliant with the post-op restrictions, but I was also losing touch with what it felt like to move normally through the world.

Weeks 5-13

I had my first post-op check-up with my surgeon’s office during week 5. At this point, they said I could drop the restrictions, but be very careful. I hadn’t picked up anything heavier than five pounds for weeks, and now I was cleared to do anything. Good, right?

Truthfully, I was scared to pick anything up, or to bend, or to twist. I didn’t trust my back. I was deeply afraid of re-injuring myself and going through another surgery for my family’s sake.

At the urging of my surgeon, I started physical therapy in Week 6, and it was exactly what I needed. I was tremendously stiff and guarded after months of pre-surgery sciatic pain and then months of post-surgery restrictions. PT is gradually helping me rebuild mobility, strength, and confidence.

By Week 11, I was able to fully take care of my 15-month-old, 30-pound son again. I could finally pick him up, carrying him around, get him in and out of his crib, and so on. That was easily the biggest milestone for me.

Nerve healing, irritation, and flare-ups

Surgery decompressed my poor sciatic nerve, and now it could finally begin healing. Nerve healing is not fun, though.

For the first ten weeks, I experienced intense pins and needles, numbness, pressure, and strange sensations all along my sciatic nerve. These “flare-ups” often followed new physical activity and lasted anywhere from a couple of hours to an entire day.

First time walking over 500 steps? Flare-up.

First time unloading the dishwasher? Big ol’ flare-up.

Oh, you want to sit down for 10 minutes? Have a huge flare-up!

At week 13, I still get flare-ups, but they are less frequent, less intense, and less surprising. I treat them with lots of ice and walking.

The emotional rollercoaster of non-linear healing

This is the hardest part for me.

I naively thought surgery would be a magical event that would turn me back into my old, pain-free, physically active self.

13 weeks later, I’m not there yet.

I’m getting closer over time, but my recovery feels slow and inconsistent. One bad flare-up can send me spiraling into fears about re-injuring myself, about never running again, about never picking up my kids or dog, about never again sitting comfortably, and on and on.

With every other injury or illness I’ve had, recovery was linear. Day after day, things improved.

But recovery from this disc injury has been non-linear. Good days, then a bad day, then an OK day, then a terrible day, then back to a good day. Some days, I feel like I’ve slipped back several weeks. The next day, I’ll wake up feeling fine.

Something that helps me on those bad days is taking stock of the things that I can do now that I could not do before surgery.

Things I can do at three months post-op

These are huge. When I was unable to do these, working or taking care of my family was nearly impossible. I can do all of these things somewhat comfortably now, and I have to remind myself how far I’ve come.

But there are still things I long to do but still can’t, like:

Listing these out felt good because … these aren’t a big deal. I will probably be able to do all of these at some point. Even so, if these were my only limitations, I’d say I still have it pretty good.

Recovery tips and tricks

Here are a few things that made post-op life a little easier:

Hope that helped. You got this.