Chris’s Story: Disc degeneration and herniation

Chris’s story begins several years (and several thousand miles) ago. He was shoveling snow in his driveway in 2007 when he slipped on an icy patch and went down hard. The pain was sudden and searing, the result of a herniated (ruptured) disc in his lower back. After the fall, Chris’s back was never the same.

“Any time I bent down to pick something up, it hurt,” he recalls. “It became this constant pain that wouldn’t go away. Nothing brought relief.”

Chris sought help from Christopher McPherson, MD, a neurosurgeon with Mayfield Brain & Spine whose practice locations include the Mayfield Spine Surgery Center.

Chris and Dr. McPherson discussed Chris’s problem as well as the pros and cons of spine surgery. Chris learned that the offending disc, in addition to having bulged out from its normal place between the S1 and L5 vertebrae, was also showing signs of degeneration, or wear and tear.

While Chris was most likely a surgical candidate, Dr. McPherson recommended they try the more conservative route first. Chris agreed, and over the next 12 to 15 months he had a series of epidural steroid injections, or ESI’s. The aim of the injections, which were delivered into the epidural space of the spine, was to reduce pain so that Chris could resume normal activities and a physical therapy program. In some cases, a disc herniation will resolve on its own during this time period.

The benefits of ESI’s tend to be temporary, however, and that was the case for Chris.

“They helped for a while,” Chris says. “They brought relief for anywhere from one to four months.”

But in the end, they were a temporary fix for an athlete who had run marathons and who liked to work up a sweat in the weight room. “I’d feel great for a while and get back in my workout routine, and then my back would go out again,” he says. Finally, Chris decided to have his problem resolved surgically. He wanted to be able to run, bike and bench-press without worrying about his back.

Dr. McPherson scheduled Chris for outpatient surgery at the Spine Surgery Center in December 2008. The procedure would be straightforward: Dr. McPherson would make a small incision in Chris’s lower back and shave off disc material that was pressing on the sciatic nerve. The remainder of the disc would remain in place between the vertebrae S1-L5.

Chris had put on a few pounds while struggling with his back, and prior to the surgery he began a determined effort to maximize his chances of a good surgical outcome. Already a non-smoker, he also began to eat more healthfully and to perform regular exercises to strengthen the core muscles that supported his back.

Chris needed several months to recover from the surgery, but eventually he was able to begin exercising again. To maintain strength and flexibility in his spine, he added yoga to his exercise routine.

Then he added more. In May 2010 he completed the Orlando Half Ironman (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, 13.1-mile run) in 93-degree with absolutely no pain, placing 186th out of 427 in his age division.

In July 2012 he competed in the Cincinnati Olympic Triathlon (1,500-meter swim, 40k bike ride, and 10k run) and placed first in his division (males 40-44) and 36th overall with a time of 2:25:57. And in August 2012 he completed his first Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run) in a total time (including transitions) of 15:31:04.

Later that month Chris was presented with the Sheriff’s Challenge Coin by Sheriff Simon Leis. In congratulating him, Sheriff Leis said, “Congratulations to Ironman Chris for this outstanding achievement -- not bad for 42 (or younger for that matter). We also need to find the name of his back surgeon and thank him for a job well done.”

Indeed, in the years since his surgery, Chris estimates he has run, biked and swum an astonishing one thousand miles. Says Chris: “Once again I say thank you to Dr. McPherson and his staff.”