‘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...

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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

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