The first 6 months of recovering from my spinal fusion surgery were pretty smooth sailing.
Sure, it might not have felt that way at the time, and it definitely wasn’t pretty. But looking back I can see that I was progressively improving. I was regaining mobility, flexibility, and strength. My energy was returning. I was stretching daily, walking about 10 miles/week, and even doing a little light yoga. I was unstoppable, baby!
Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back
Around 7-8 months post-op, I began having new acute back pain. Sometimes it felt like my pre-surgery pain. Other times I had pain in spots that had never really bothered me before. I’ve since learned that these “flare-ups” are common after spinal fusion surgery. Once a section of the spine has been immobilized, the rest of the spine (particularly the parts adjacent to the fusion) has to compensate. And the joints carrying the extra load can periodically become irritated and inflamed.
So far I’ve been able to manage my flare-ups with a combination of anti-inflammatories, physical therapy, TENS therapy, and avoiding obvious triggers. And thankfully, my most recent episode of acute back pain is resolved. (In case you missed my latest vlog post, here’s a peek inside one of my PT sessions.)
But for the last couple of weeks, I just haven’t felt right. My back is super stiff. My hip alignment is off, and so is my gait. Walking for extended periods of time, especially on uneven surfaces, aggravates my back and hips. And my hamstrings. Oh, my hamstrings. They are so tight that I can’t even fully extend my legs while sitting.
And while physical therapy (and at home exercises) have helped reduce my acute back pain, my overall mobility, flexibility, and strength are regressing. I feel like I’m getting worse, not better.
So when my brand new primary care doctor asked me yesterday how it feels when I run, I looked at him in disbelief. RUN?! How could I possibly even consider running when walking hurts right now? Sure, my BLT (bend, lift, twist) restrictions were lifted at 3 months post-op. And the only activities I’d specifically been told to avoid were sit-ups, push-ups, and crunches. But running? No way. I’m not ready.
The funny thing is that when I told my doctor that I hadn’t tried running yet, he looked at me with an equal amount of disbelief. I think he was genuinely shocked that an alleged runner like myself hadn’t even attempted a little jog yet.
Apparently that’s going to change.
My doctor would like to get me running again – and soon. He wants me to start off on a stationary bike and work my way up to running on a treadmill within the next week or two. And while marathon training is not going to happen any time soon, he thinks that running 3 miles a few times a week is a very realistic goal.
So after hearing that news, you’d think I’d be jumping for joy right there in the doctor’s office, right?
So did I. But I didn’t jump. And I didn’t feel joy. More than anything, I felt an overwhelming sense of FEAR. I even cried a little when I got in my car. This threw me. I finally got the news I’ve been waiting to hear for months – so why on earth wasn’t I happy?
Courage and Fear
I’ve given this a lot of thought over the last two days. I also talked it through with my husband and my friend Stacy – both understood & validated my fear, which made me feel a little less crazy. So here’s what I think is going on.
First of all, I have a lot of little fears: What if running hurts? What if I hate it? What if I’m in terrible shape? What if I’m gasping for air after 30 seconds on the treadmill? What if I look like an idiot? What if I’m bad at it? Everyone thinks of me as a “runner,” but what if I’m just not anymore? Will people be disappointed in me? Will I be disappointed in myself? Will I have anything to blog about? What will I do with all those running skirts?
Those are all pretty minor things though, especially for a person with my level of general anxiety – that’s pretty much what it sounds like inside my head all the time.
But then there’s the Big Fear:
Over the last 18 months (and especially the last 10), I’ve come to think of my body as fragile – something to be guarded with great care. For the first time in my life, I’m acutely aware of my body and the daily perils that surround me.
Caution is good. Especially when your body is being held together by screws. But is it possible that I’m being too cautious now, almost a year into my recovery? Am I missing out on things that I no longer need to avoid? I honestly don’t know.
What’s interesting is that while I’ve come to regard my body as being weak, my mental fortitude has grown in leaps and bounds. I am so much tougher than I’d ever imagined! Even just the fact that I was brave enough to have (and recover from) major surgery is a big deal by itself. I’ve also learned that my tolerance for pain and discomfort is so much higher than I believed it to be. And I’ve discovered that I have the strength to ask for help, to accept my body’s limitations with grace, and to make hard decisions for the sake of my physical well-being.
So here’s what I’m wondering. Should I trust my doctor and just go for it? (I’m in pain already anyway, right?) Should I listen to my fear? Or is my fear holding me back from truly recovering? And most of all – can my mental toughness help compensate for my fear of my physical weakness? Can I do this even though I’m scared?
I guess I’m going to find out.
“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” ~ John Wayne