Three back surgeries convinced me to fire my personal trainer: me (Part 3)

Posted by Al Boyle
On September 17, 2023

“You’ve gotta be f***ing kidding.”

Palmer, when Norris’s head sprouts spider legs and crawls away.
The Thing (1982)

“You don’t know what pain is!”

Buffalo Bill, to his captive Catherine Martin
Silence of the Lambs (1991)

If you haven’t read them already, part 1 and part 2 include important context and more entertainment.


Just when I’ve made peace with the notion my surgical history now includes “back surgeries,” I start feeling a bit off.

I think the first warning sign started in August. It was that subtle, at first.

At first.

I’m thinking my sacroiliac (SI) joint is out. It used to slip out of position with greater frequency, say several times a year. Can’t imagine why between martial arts, strength training, and my affinity for experimentation when it comes to new exercises that seem within my reach.

As Dirty Harry once said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

I’m grateful for the wise massage therapist and physical therapist who taught me stretches that keep the joint where it belongs most of the time.

Most of the time, because I have a knack for getting in my own way and enjoying it… at the time, anyway.

The spine specialist told me aside from the herniated discs, I had the spine of a thirty-year-old: The rest of my spinal column was well-hydrated and in good form.

I’m not gonna lie: as a fitness enthusiast, it made me proud. My sustained dedication to fitness over many years earned me this moment. The dopamine hit was dope. Plenty of mileage left on this chassis, thank you very much.

The realist in me?

My lumbar spine MRI reports tend to read like the home inspection report for a condemned home: unwanted deposits here, worn parts there, and some foundational settling. The movie version is a snug fit for the post-apocalyptic genre. Only the optimist in me keeps it out of the horror genre.

Still, I’ll accept my wins with grace, humility, and gratitude because some are more challenging than others. If my therapist ever reads this, she’ll beam. This might be a wonderful place to stop reading, Doc.

I get a call about a local appointment cancellation, so on New Year’s Eve morning, I get to have my lumbar MRI. It’s cool and damp out—I’m able to confirm this when they guide me out to their “mobile unit” for the imaging.

The unit’s housed in a vehicle about the size of a  mid-sized U-Haul. It’s equipped with a hydraulic ramp to raise us three feet from the ground to unit-level. I admire the parking lot view during my brief trip. I might be able to dunk a basketball.

MRI goes well, and I’m glad that after months of chronic stiffness, pain, and uncertainty, I’ll have answers and a treatment plan.

My wife and I try infrared sauna, enjoy it, and leave the facility feeling great. Things are looking up, way up.

I blow my disc out that night.

And when I say blow it out, I’m talking excruciating pain that’s worse than anything I’ve experienced. A lightning bolt courses through my leg, 24/7. I can barely walk, using furniture to go from station to station so I don’t collapse.

I endure a long, hellish weekend before my return visit to the surgeon. A different surgeon this time… my previous surgeon retired without consulting with me. To be fair, he waited thirteen years for me to punch my last ticket to his operating table. And he did tell me he was scaling back further on his hours. I salute him, and I’m glad he was there for me.

I ask my new surgeon if I’ll need another MRI. I mean, the way I feel now feels like the difference between a large splinter and impalement. He says I don’t: Though the symptoms have intensified to off-the-chart territory, they remain consistent. This is a relief, because hobbling to and from the car plus into and out of the facility sounds like next-level medieval torture.

I manage to work some torture in anyway—I consult with a second surgeon for due diligence purposes. It’s a no-brainer—I need surgery. I return to my neurosurgeon and we schedule it. The good news is, it’s considered a cleanup procedure, so it’ll still be minimally invasive. That’s the cool news.

The uncool news, part one:  This is the last minimally invasive surgical procedure I’ll have on my lumbar area. The statement drips with subtext: Injure the disk again, and not only will your scar suggest you went all-in during Shark Week, you’ll be setting off metal detectors at the airport for the rest of your life. I’ll be part cyborg. Roger that.

The uncool news, part two: I have to wait three weeks.

“Well, that’s great. That’s just f***in’ great, man! Now what the f*** are we supposed to do? We’re in some real pretty s***, now man! That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over!”

Corporal Hudson, after the drop ship coming to rescue them crashes
Aliens (1986)

I gut out the three longest weeks in recent memory. I’m so jacked with pain medication, I’m a walking pharmacy, only without much walking. It’s more of a wounded zombie shuffle.

The week of the surgery, I get a patient portal message confirming my surgery, Only there’s a minor discrepancy that concerns me: It’s a day later than we’d discussed.

I call to confirm whether it’s a typo or they’ve moved me back a day.

It’s the latter. We’re so sorry.

Yeah, get in line.

I shake it off fast, giving myself a quick pep talk: You’ve got this, You’ve come this far. If they push it to next week, the nuclear option will be on the table.

There are no further delays. The surgery goes well, and I‘m once again back pain-free. I’m still feeling pain elsewhere, but I mistake it for residual back pain. Another post for another day.

I’m six months into my recovery as I write this. I’ve restored quite a bit of flexibility and range of motion. I’m gradually increasing the intensity of my workouts, mindful I’m only halfway to whatever my recovery will be.

My surgeon reminds me (and I’m thinking my previous surgeon must’ve shared some valuable intel about f***ing stupidity)–this is my last minimally invasive surgery. The first two involved drilling tiny holes in my lamina. This one required a hole and removing a small piece of the lamina to get at the part of the disc. I wish I could’ve kept it as a souvenir (a/k/a sobering reminder).

The Wrap-up

I think I’ve learned the lessons that eluded me in 1989. 2009,  2022. and 2023. I own it, I’m trying to learn from it, and I’m working to regain my lumbar area’s trust. I understand it won’t be holding its breath.

Strength training is key to maintaining the muscle mass I’ll need to maintain an active lifestyle as I age. I have a strong core to support my lower back, and I’ll continue strengthening it. How?

I’ll be working with a team.

I’ll engage with a functional medical doctor to ensure I’ve got a scalable, sustainable workout that offers variety and increasing challenges. I suspect I’ve underdeveloped some of my leg muscles, and my body’s compensated through improper form during squats and similar exercises.

My previous experience has become a cautionary tale for me. I hope it might inspire you to treat your spine with the respect it deserves.

One life, one body.

How is your back treating you? Better yet, let’s cut right to it: How are you treating it?



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