It began with the sensation of pins and needles going down my right buttock and leg. As a 40-year-old runner, triathlete and yogini, I’d felt aches and pains before. But this was something different.
I’m a type A personality, so at first I ignored it. This worked, until things escalated to the point where the constant pain radiated in my back. In four months, I went from exercising six times a week — even placing third in my age group in a triathlon — to feeling an unacceptable level of discomfort that was exacerbated by the smallest things, like bending over to tie my shoes or twisting to put on my seat belt.
After a couple more months of misery, I finally paid a visit to my doctor. The MRI revealed that there were several things going on, none of them good. Two of my spinal discs, which are the body’s shock absorbers (they’re like spongy doughnuts with jelly centers), were flattened beyond where they should be, and the “jelly” was bulging out of the fibrous exterior. I also had a narrowing of the bony openings where the nerves leave the spinal column, a condition known as foraminal stenosis. The official medical diagnosis was two herniated discs, foraminal stenosis and severe degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine.
Typically, treatment for those conditions begins with physical therapy. That wasn’t going to be enough for me. The next alternative is prescription medication or cortisone injections — just Band-Aids so you can live with the pain. The last option is surgery.
I was crushed, certain that my time as an athlete was over. So I did the one thing that I knew I could do in an otherwise uncontrollable situation: research. I’m a financial analyst by trade, so when problems crop up, I dig in and look at the data. And I found some really surprising things.
Weighing My Options
I began exploring alternatives to more invasive procedures, and I found a few, including chiropractic and nonsurgical spinal-decompression therapy, a procedure that employs motorized mechanical traction to relieve pressure on spinal discs and nerves. One article I found suggested that for diagnoses like mine, the success rate for people who undergo surgery is pretty much the same as for those who take nontraditional, noninvasive approaches. The authors equated the two options to the fable about the tortoise and the hare: Surgery produced quicker results than noninvasive treatments, but after five years the results were basically a tie.
Still, I was skeptical about spinal-decompression methods because my research didn’t turn up much in the way of peer-reviewed literature demonstrating its efficacy. What I did find were mainly studies published by manufacturers of decompression tables and equipment. At the suggestion of my primary doctor, I made an appointment with both a traditional pain specialist and a chiropractor who specializes in spinal-decompression therapy. I had a barrage of questions for both of them.
After those meetings, I circled back with my primary doctor. We agreed that the most significant risk in choosing spinal-decompression therapy was that it might not work, so I would be out some money and still need injections or surgery. That was a risk I was willing to take if it kept a large needle out of my back. What’s more, some research showed that spinal fusion, a common surgical option, could lead to additional problems later in life.
In spinal-decompression therapy, you lie on a specialized table that’s split in two. The upper body is affixed to one half, and there’s a pelvic harness that anchors the lower body to the other half and the traction unit. The doctor operates a computer that controls the variable force and angles of pull as the two halves of the table move apart in tiny, variable increments.
The treatment is designed to overcome the body’s compensatory muscular contractions in the back, increasing the space between the vertebrae, reducing pressure, and expanding blood flow to the spinal discs.
I’m not going to lie: This therapy involved a significant time commitment. The chiropractor recommended a protocol of two to three 45-minute treatments per week for about 10 weeks. In addition to these decompression sessions, there were also frequent stretching and chiropractic adjustments, cold-laser treatments, plus body-weight exercises for core stabilization that I did on my own every day.
About halfway into the treatment protocol, I was still in a fairly significant amount of pain. I hadn’t been using any painkillers (not even ibuprofen), but around that time, I began seriously thinking about getting a cortisone injection.
Shortly afterward, though, I really started to see improvements. “Wow,” I remember thinking. “I can tie my shoes now and I don’t have to think about guarding my back as I bend down!” Then the radiating pain began to dissipate. By the end of the protocol, I was able to sit and sleep and drive and exercise again without significant pain, which to me was just absolutely incredible.
I still occasionally have flare-ups and have to go back for treatment. But I don’t let the pain get to the point where it was a year ago. I’m much more in touch with my body, and I’ve learned not to push through pain like I was trying to do before.
I can do pretty much everything I did before, and I’m back fully into my fitness routine. The only concession I’ve made is that I now limit my running to lessen the potential stress on my spine. But it’s not something my doctor or chiropractor mandated — it’s just something I’ve chosen to do.
Instead of running, over the past year I’ve focused more on cycling. I recently completed a couple of metric-century (about 62 miles) cycle rides, and I’ve joined some cycling groups.
In some ways, this struggle has been a blessing. I’ve met a lot of great people. Exercise is more social for me now. Grappling with this medical issue has also helped me realize I need to take control of my own healthcare. I don’t have to be an inactive bystander. In the future, I can be more assertive regarding decisions about my medical treatment. And that realization has been just as empowering as my physical recovery.
Meet: Lisa Dillon, 41, a CPA who lives in Tempe, Ariz., with her husband and their two boys.
Big Achievement: Successfully treating back pain without surgery.
Big Inspiration: Realizing that alternative medicine could provide lasting, effective pain relief to help her resume an active life.
What Worked: Doing the research and educating herself on her condition. Finding doctors willing to collaborate with her to design a successful plan.
What Didn’t: Trying to ignore the pain while simultaneously feeling frustrated and impatient about it.
Words of Wisdom: “Be an informed medical consumer. Ask lots of questions and don’t be afraid to get multiple opinions. Don’t let pain force you into a quick decision that you might regret later.”