This month marks 10 months since I underwent transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion [TLIF] to correct damage to my lower back. I had heard many horror stories about failed back surgeries, as well as some success stories. I had half my friends telling me "don't do it," and the other half saying "go for it." It was a very difficult decision, but in the end one I am thankful I made.
I was injured while lifting my [then] sixty-five pound daughter out of a shopping cart and twisting to put her in her car seat. I felt a tear and an MRI showed a severe bulge in my L4-L5 disc. I put off having surgery for two years. Opting instead for bi-monthly injections in my spine, pain meds and an electro-shock treatment where they go in and actually burn off the nerves using electric shock waves. All of these treatments were painful, expensive and time consuming. Unfortunately, multiple attempts at physical therapy treatment were failures. And sadly, my damage was too extensive for chiropractic treatment (there was risk of causing more harm than good), so I muddled through each day living with pain every waking moment until one day last November when I [stupidly] lifted a heavy box above my head and caused a piece of the spine to splinter off into the bulging disk and rupture it.
I also had sciatica, along with the ruptured disc. The pain was so debilitating I could not walk, and so excruciating that the injections no longer provided any relief. It was at that point that the neurosurgeon told me I could possibly spend the rest of my life in a wheel chair if I didn't repair the damage soon. So I agreed to undergo major surgery just 6 days before Christmas, knowing it would cause a damper on our holiday plans. The surgery went well, but the pain afterward was the most agonizing experience I have ever had in my life...and I have had 10 major surgeries over the course of my lifetime, as well as having given birth to six children, so I am no stranger to pain. But what you experience for the first few days of recovery is virtually indescribable. No amount of morphine could prepare me for it, especially since the hospital made me get on my feet and stand within 18 hours of having my back cut open, the disc and bone removed and replaced with a "fake" bone & disc which were made from plastic and part of a cadaver bone (yes, I now have a piece of a deceased person inside me) and four long titanium screws and plate inserted. And within 24 hours they made me walk. Imagine having to bear all 154 pounds of weight onto a freshly operated spine. I wanted to die.
I was out of the hospital five days later, which was the day before Christmas Eve. I could do little more than lay in bed, but we managed to enjoy the holiday in spite of the situation.
Recovery has been a very painful and slow process. I had in-home health care for the first two months. followed by two months of light physical therapy to strengthen the bone and loosen the muscles. I was told prior to surgery that I should expect to have at least 50% pain improvement. In the beginning, there was virtually no improvement. I had severe swelling and pain at the incision site. But with time, I've had some enhancement. I no longer live with pain every waking moment, but instead feel moments of relief at various times throughout the day. I am not pain free, and likely never will be. I hurt if I sit for more than 30 or 40 minutes, stand for more than 15 or 20 minutes, or lay on my back for more than an hour. This makes sleeping difficult. I rarely get more than 4 or 5 hours of sleep on average anymore because my back wakes me throughout the night and I have to get out of bed and move around.
Life as I once knew it will never be the same. I now have a bulging disc in the mid-back (T3) that causes me pain as well. I've been told I have degenerative disc disease, and I am at risk of osteoarthritis, osteopenia and osteoporosis because these conditions run in my family and are genetically transferred, so the need for more surgery will likely arise eventually. I just have to live in the moment and do the best I can to get through each day.
I am still in a pain clinic. I still receive periodic injections in both my spine and my right shoulder (rotator cuff disease) and require medication. I have been driving 56 miles to Brentwood every 30 days for the past three years to see my pain doctor for treatment. It is a hassle, and I hope to one day soon be rid of the need, but for now it is what it is. Since having surgery, there is at least the possibility and hope of being semi-pain free some day.
Having shared my experience with this type of surgery, you may be wondering would I recommend spinal fusion to others. That would depend. If your injuries are manageable and you are not in constant pain (every minute of every day like I was), then no I personally would not recommend it (this is solely my own personal opinion and is NOT to be taken over the advice of your doctor). However, if you are in severe, daily pain then yes I would recommend the risks of surgery, because any relief at all is a Blessing when you live in constant pain (again, this is solely my own personal opinion and you should always follow your doctor's advice and/or recommendations).