Patient story – How exercise saved me from surgery

Stephen Rigby, 51, is a Company Director who lives near Lewes.   He tells us how he avoided having major surgery on his back by following treatments and a simple fitness and strengthening regime.

“I’d been having spells of back pain since before last summer (2016).  Although I’ve played a lot of sports throughout my life, my job means I have spent years sitting at a desk.  I think the combination of old injuries and long bouts of inactivity were contributing factors.

“It was while I was on holiday in Italy in the autumn 2016 that the pain became really acute after climbing steps carrying a back pack.  The pain was so intense – my natural instinct was to protect my back and I tried to move as little as possible because it hurt and when I had to walk, I hunched over and shuffled along slowly. Even sitting for short periods was really painful and I had to use anti-inflammatory and pain relief drugs over the following days to be able to even stand up. I knew that while they helped temporarily, they weren’t a long term ‘fix’.

“On my return home to England it had not improved to any great degree, and I didn’t want to keep using drugs.  I booked a private MRI scan in the hope that it would identify what was wrong and could get it treated as soon as possible. The investigation showed that I had two herniated discs in my spine. An orthopaedic surgeon said that he was amazed that I could even walk but said that the most acute of them could be surgically repaired. A surgery date was set but I was reluctant to have surgery unless it was the last resort, because I had heard that strengthening and proper exercise can often be better.

“So in between times I saw a physiotherapist who gave me exercises to help relieve the pain, a cranio-sacral osteopath who helped to ‘straighten me up’, as I was by then quite twisted from the months trying to compensate for the pain I was in. Lastly I went to see a fitness coach who gave me simple but specific exercises to strengthen my core muscles and help take some pressure off my discs and support my back.

“It may sound complicated but really it wasn’t. It was all very logical and simple and let my body sort itself out and relieve the pain, without the use of drugs.

“Doing the exercises to start with was pretty uncomfortable, and I felt nervous about causing further damage, but all the clinicians reassured me that my back was strong and that I wouldn’t make the problem worse by moving and gently building up the exercise.

“I’ve been doing my exercises every day and the results have been dramatic.  I get the odd twinge every now and then but by and large I am pain free and so much more mobile. The extent of my recovery was brought home to me last month (March 2017) when I took a long haul flight to Indonesia.  I was comfortable throughout the tens of hours in an aeroplane, not to mention boat trips, swimming, walking and climbing and I stayed in basic accommodation with not an orthopaedic mattress in sight!

“I make sure I give myself time to exercise each day and have now been assessed and told that surgery is no longer needed. That is exactly the result I wanted to hear. It is a small price to pay for feeling and moving better and keeping active is what we are advised to do by the medical profession in any case.

“I feel better now than I have done for months but it has been quite a journey. Constant pain is extremely mentally debilitating and it takes a lot of grit and determination to get moving.

“When your back hurts, the natural instinct is to protect it, so if movement causes pain, then you try not to move.  Going back a few years people were prescribed bed rest and immobility to sort it out, but I’ve learnt that the most important thing is to keep mobile – to push yourself little by little.  I don’t think it makes things worse – on the contrary, it makes you better.

“I think that there is a lot that we can do to help ourselves to recover.  I don’t want to be a patient, I don’t want to have surgery or take pain killers. Most importantly I want to feel fit and healthy and I want to be able to move properly and do normal things.  While it takes effort, exercising has given me the freedom to get my life back to normal, be able to be there and support my family as I used to, travel, play sport and do my job without worrying about being in pain.”