Recovering from chronic back pain: When Everything Changed podcast

Recovering from Lower Back PainIn this episode of When Everything Changed, we hear from Kaiser Permanente member, Summer.

Summer began experiencing moderate back pain after she fell out of a tree as a youngster. A competitive swimmer by age 6, she swam competitively all the way through college even with constant back pain. As a trained athlete, she largely ignored the pain and didn’t adequately explain the problem to her parents or doctors. When she did tell people about it, the depth of the condition was not recognized and she was put on various core strengthening exercises which didn’t help alleviate the pain.

In her early 20s she went to see her medical doctor about flu symptoms and was asked if anything else was bothering her. Summer mentioned her back hurt a lot so the physician ordered an X-ray of her spine that revealed a spine defect. Then living in Honolulu, she consulted with orthopedic and neurosurgeons there and was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, a condition in which a lumbar vertebra slips forward over another. On a scale of I to V (V being the worst), her condition was at a grade III. A move to Seattle was imminent and she decided against immediate surgery.

Over the course of the next few years, her day-to-day pain level became so intense that she consulted with medical doctors at Kaiser Permanente. She learned her condition had worsened from grade III to grade V. With such constant acute pain, coupled with the fear of what might happened if left untreated, she opted for major surgery that took place in July 2001.

During the surgery, her surgeons removed her lowest lumbar vertebra, realigned her spine, and secured it with hardware. After the surgery, Summer was restricted to a body brace for four months while she healed. Unfortunately, some nerve damage occurred during surgery and she lost the ability to lift her feet, resulting in another condition called “foot drop.” Summer subsequently spent many years using orthotics, walkers, canes, and crutches. In 2005 and 2006 she underwent two more surgeries to move tendons in her feet to enable her to walk unaided by orthotics. With an abundance of support and help from doctors and physical therapists, she was able to walk unaided again.

Through it all, she reminded herself that everyone experiences struggles in life. Her conditioning as an athlete helped with the mental and emotional recovery—allowing her to find ways to endure the pain and build coping mechanisms throughout the difficult healing process. Now, she lives pain-free and is able to enjoy bike rides, long walks, and time with her young child. She encourages those who are experiencing back pain to take the necessary steps, as frightening as they might be, because life presents a series of challenges that we must face head-on in order to move forward.

In this episode we discuss:

  • The complications of back pain
  • Dealing with the emotional impact of life changes
  • The importance of receiving the care that you need

Thank you for listening!

Did this story move you? If so, please share it. Do you have a health turning point story you want to share? Email us at wheneverythingchanged@ghc.org.

When Everything Changed is a production of Kaiser Permanente.