‘I slipped a disc sneezing!’
Catherine Harper went from a simple sneeze – ah-choo! – to the surgeon’s knife in less than two weeks. She shares her story with Friday...
Isneezed and slipped a disc. It was as simple as that; I went from lying in bed with a tickly nose to the operating table in less than two weeks, and all because of a sneeze. I’d had lower back problems since my early 20s, including disc surgery in 2003 and again in 2008. But it simply never occurred to me that the niggling twinge in my left shoulder could be anything other than a pulled muscle.
It had been bothering me for a couple of weeks and I’d been trying various home remedies, hoping it would just go away I wouldn’t have to make the effort to go to the doctor. Heat packs seemed to aggravate it, simple painkillers didn’t make a jot of difference, resting didn’t appear to ease it. Finally, somebody suggested an ice pack and that did the trick well enough for me to consider it was getting better, so I just carried on without getting it checked out.
I continued to exercise, running a few kilometres or doing a circuit training workout five or six days out of seven. It was during one of these workouts I had a worrying realisation; each time I landed on the floor after a jump or leap, bolts of lightening shot through my shoulder and down my left arm. It was the same pain I’d felt when I first slipped a disc in my lower back, and I began to worry.
That night I was really restless in bed. I couldn’t get comfortable or fall asleep, and couldn’t stop thinking about the bolts of pain down my arm. Next morning I felt stiff and in pain. As I moved to get out of bed I felt my nose tickle, then it came. A sneeze. Not a major, earth-shattering sneeze; just a regular, run-of-the-mill effort. Enough to do serious damage to my disc, though. The same lightning bolts of pain shot through my shoulder and down my arm, but this time they didn’t go away. My arm began to tingle and my hand and fingers felt numb. The pain running down the outside of my arm – almost as though someone was dragging a knife down the bone – was excruciating.
I struggled through the day with ice packs and anti-inflammatories, which helped take the edge off the pain. Still, I was in denial and didn’t go to the doctor. Why? Because it was hard to find the time in my already
hectic day. And I had no idea how serious my condition was.
I managed a further two days going to work and looking after my children William, four, and Elin, two. But I finally gave in on the third day, by which time the ice and antiinflammatories were no longer working. I couldn’t pick up my children, couldn’t play with them; it upset them to see me in tears of pain. from cranes – that I’d simply sneezed – he patiently explained I’d probably done most of the damage simply from having unhealthy posture at my desk and that the disc would likely have been bulging for some time prior to the sneeze. Had I sought medical help sooner, I could perhaps have taken steps to avoid a slipped disc. I regretted not having done so, but better late than never. Although here I was, unable to stand upright or walk properly thanks to the unbearable pain that ran from my neck across my shoulder and down my left arm. I scheduled the MRI at Medcare Hospital in Dubai for the same afternoon and went home with a bag full of strong painkillers.
Waiting two days for the MRI results was agony; partly because I was dreading being told I needed yet more surgery on my spine, and partly because I was, quite literally, in agony. No position was comfortable. I was taking up to 10 of the strongest of painkillers a day and they only gave me temporary, partial relief.
The whole experience was wearing me down. I spent much of my time in tears. Scott was amazing with the kids, and took over every daily task
The disc had burst and sent loose particles into my lower spinal column and I’d need surgery
With the increasing sensation of numbness downmy left arm, and the constant tingling and numbness in my fingers getting worse, I knew it wasn’t going to just go away. “I need to see a doctor,” I finally admitted tomy husband, Scott, 42. And I gotmyself the first available appointment.
The next day the doctor listened to my symptoms and my history of back problems and immediately ordered an MRI scan on my cervical spine. “It’s likely you’ve slipped a disc,” he said. “We need to take a closer look.” When I told him I hadn’t been lifting 50kg weights or jumping so I could rest. I had constant searing pain through my shoulder and down my arm, most of my arm was completely numb, and my hand and fingers tingled non-stop. I was losing power and strength, too. It broke my heart that I couldn’t play with my children. I found it hard to hold back tears of pain in front of them, which upset me in itself.
I got the first appointment of the day when the MRI results were ready and was in the doctor’s office as fast as I could shuffle. He took one look at the scan and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had a herniated disc.
The disc had burst and sent loose particles into my lower spinal column and I would need surgery as soon as possible. Although I’d almost been expecting this diagnosis, given the level of pain I was in, I was still taken aback. How could I have done so much damage to a disc simply from a mild, inoffensive sneeze? And surely my posture wasn’t so bad that it had caused the disc to bulge so seriously it had practically exploded? The doctors had no answer, they just said I was unlucky!
I wandered out of the hospital in a bit of a daze and called my mother. We agreed a second opinion was probably a good idea, before I rushed into surgery, and I scheduled an appointment with a neurosurgeon my husband had seen before. Confusingly, his opinion was
the opposite; he thought I stood a reasonable chance of recovery through rest and physiotherapy without surgery. But far from being reassured, I was even more concerned as two doctors had given me such differing opinions.
I sought out one more opinion, this time from the doctor who carried out my previous back surgeries. His opinion was quick and brief; the level of damage to the disc was such that surgery was required, with only a 10 to 20 per cent chance of recovery without it (and even then, I might not get full use of my arm back). I’d need the damaged disc removed and replaced with an artificial disc and it was looking forward to getting rid of the pain. The theatre staff put me at ease instantly, even managing to make me laugh at a couple of very poor jokes. I hate needles and I began to panic when the anaesthetic burned my vein through an IV cannula, but in seconds I was out cold.
Iwoke up to find the surgeon at the foot of my bed. “The operation has been a success and you can expect a full recovery,” he said. I’d regain full sensation and use of my arm and hand. There was no risk of my body rejecting the new disk too. Relief.
I was just so glad to be out of pain. Although I knew the majority of my pain-free state was due to the postoperative morphine, I could already tell the debilitating, dragging pain down my arm had disappeared.
I was up and out of my hospital bed that evening, and back to being mobile the next day.
Two days later, I was home. I felt a certain level of discomfort in my spine where the artificial disc had been fitted. But the most significant pain was the front of my throat – my windpipe – where everything had had to be moved out of the way to allow access to my spine, and held in that position while the surgeon did his work. Each swallow was painful, and eating was difficult. But it was nothing compared to the pain I’d been in in pre-surgery, though.
I was back at the wheel of my car within three weeks and back to gentle exercise a couple of weeks after that, although not with any level of impact. I couldn’t lift the children for six weeks, but now I’m pretty much back to normal.
There is a risk it will happen again, but I make every effort to ensure I’m sitting up straight, and avoid putting any kind of strain on my spine. I have to get on with my life and at least now I’m pain free.
I’d need the damaged disc replaced with an artificial one – and the operation would take three hours
would take three hours in theatre. I resigned myself to the fact that this problem was not going to get better by itself, accepted the doctor’s advice about the artificial disc and booked the surgery for a few days’ time.
I arrived at the hospital on the day of the surgery very nervous. I hate hospitals at the best of times – but I
My windpipe had to be moved out of the way to access my spine
My ruptured disc was replaced with an artificial one
It took over six weeks for me to recover
It’s such a relief to be free of pain
I’ve always kept fit, despite my back problems