Recovering from Spinal Surgery: Running Again…Or Not
Last month, my husband shared this on his personal Facebook page:
“Sharon Wilhelm is cleared by docs to run again…”
Yet here it is, several weeks later, and I’m still not running. Let me explain.
My husband’s post was accurate, if not overly enthusiastic. Yes, my primary care doctor cleared me to run. Technically, I’ve been cleared to run since my 3 month post-up visit last August. That’s when my surgeon lifted all of my restrictions and released me from his care.
But being “cleared” to run is not the same thing as being “able” to run. And despite what my doctors say, I’m not able to run. I know this for a fact.
I don’t mean mentally. While I do have some fear about running again, that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I mean is that I’m not physically able to run. My body can’t handle it – not yet, anyway.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been having pain in my SI (sacroiliac) joints since February. And despite having physical therapy twice a week for the last two months, I’m seeing little (if any) improvement.
My hip alignment is off. My paraspinal (skeletal) muscles are spasming. I’m having lower back pain on both sides now (it used to be just on my left side). And I’m having hip pain & the tiniest twinges radiating down my legs. The leg pain is barely noticeable, but it’s a familiar pain (from both before and immediately following surgery) and it scares me to death.
Considering the above, attempting to run right now seems absurd – at least it feels that way to me. And my physical therapists agree. Until we get my acute symptoms under control, running is off the table.
Truth? I’m okay with this. I’m cringing right now just at the thought of trying to run around the block. I’m okay with waiting.
Physical Therapy after Spinal Surgery
In the meantime, I’m continuing to work my butt off in PT. We started out working on my core and hip strength & flexibility. But most of those exercises ended up causing lower back pain. So we’ve recently scaled back my exercises to focus on core & pelvic floor strength. These exercises don’t hurt, and I feel like I’m getting a pretty good core workout from them.
Here’s a list of my current physical therapy exercises:
- Transverse Abdominal Activation (drawing bellybutton to spine & holding for 5 seconds)
- Pelvic Floor Activation
- Glute Activation
- Hip Abduction Ball Squeeze
- Hip Abduction with Theraband
- Prone Prop
- Prone Hip Extension
- McKenzie Side Glide
- Single Leg Balance
In addition to the exercises, my physical therapists use a combination of TENS therapy, massage, and SI joint manipulation. I’ve also started riding a stationary bike in PT. The upright bike puts too much strain on my back, so I’m using the recumbent bike for now.
Outside of PT, I’ve started taking water aerobics classes at a local pool. They’re fun, and I can do most of the exercises without straining my back. Plus they make me feel super young & spry.
I’m still walking on the beach pretty regularly, but I’ve had to scale back my walks. If the sand is too soft or uneven, it aggravates my hips and back. This has been a hard adjustment, as my beach walks bring me great joy. But hopefully it’s just a short-term sacrifice, and I’ll be able to get back to my long low tide walks once my joints & muscles start to cooperate.
Spinal Fusion Recovery: My Next Step
While I like my neurosurgeon, there have been gaps in my continuity of care. As I mentioned, I was released from my surgeon’s care at 3 months post-op. At that time, I received no formal referrals, other than instructions to call if I had a problem and to follow up with my PCP. With the exception of a few exercises (sit-ups, push-ups, and crunches), my restrictions were completely lifted. Physical therapy was presented as optional and probably not necessary. I was given a few medication refills and sent on my merry way.
Well, my way has stopped being merry.
My surgical team is reluctant to treat me unless I’m having problems directly related to my fusion (e.g., a broken screw). And while my PCP was certainly well-intentioned, I don’t think the solution is as simple as starting to run again – at least not yet. First I need some answers. Is my hardware intact? Have my bones fully fused? Are my SI joints the true source of my pain, or could it be something else? Are new nerves being compressed?
After talking with some friends, I’ve decided that an orthopedic doctor may be my best option at this point. Hopefully I can find one who’s willing to see me. I’ll keep you posted.