Case Study: from an excruciatingly painful herniated disc to an active life

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One of my dear, long-term students is leaving; she is moving to another country. Amaia’s story is an example of how debilitating back pain due to a herniated disc can heal over time and back health can be maintained with the right help and life-style changes. Before moving, Amaia agreed that we write her story. Before moving, Amaia agreed that we write her story, to encourage anyone who is recovering from a herniated disc or severe lower back pain…

About 4 years ago, and about 5 months before she started yoga therapy with me, Amaia suddenly experienced severe lower back pain, with pain shooting down her right leg. The pain was quite unexpected, although she had been doing more gardening than usual. In Amaia’s own words:

“I was crying with pain, could hardly get out of bed and had to take very strong anti-inflammatory medication just in order to get up in the morning. Every movement hurt, sleeping was very interrupted and the pain in my back and leg stayed for a few weeks. During this time I could not do my daily work and sitting down was the worst. When you are in so much pain, the relationship with your family is difficult: I was in a bad mood often, angry or depressed. Luckily I have a supportive husband. I couldn’t see myself in a profession, having to be nice to students/colleagues when in this pain. But the relationships at home suffer most: the ones you love the most get the worst of your behavior. The most challenging about this situation is that the physical pain leads to emotional turmoil. One feels impotent, without strength. You constantly wonder why this is happening to you, you feel useless.”

If you have ever had severe lower back pain, perhaps also a herniated disc and sciatica, you probably recognize this situation. The nerve pain that results from an intervertebral disc bulging and pressing against the sciatic nerve is a very difficult physical pains to deal with. Luckily, the disc herniation usually heals sufficiently over a couple of weeks to ease some of the pain. It requires months, however, before you can resume an active life, and this only if you know how to look after your back and how to avoid relapses.

In the months before she found yoga therapy, Amaia sought help from an osteopath, chiropractor, physiotherapist and massage therapist. They all agreed she needed to continue with an exercise regime and so Amaia tried Pilates and a general yoga class. The osteopath had insisted that Amaia strengthen her abdominal muscles to support her weakened lower back. By the time she started yoga therapy with me, the pain was less but her back still felt very fragile. Amaia started with individual sessions and did some stretches at home every day. After 6 weeks, when her back felt stronger and she had learned which movements to avoid, Amaia was ready to join my small back care group class. As we speak, she has been attending this class for over 3 years, twice a week!

Initially, it was important for Amaia to avoid all forward bends, twists and sideways bends. This is why a general yoga class was not helpful for her condition and sometimes hurt. Her yoga therapy included leg stretching, some very gentle backbends and abdominal strengthening exercises. Breathing and relaxation exercises were very important to relieve the stress and anxiety of having been in so much pain. In the back care group sessions, we gradually added new poses over the next months, until Amaia could join in all the movements. By now Amaia has developed the body awareness that tells her when to be careful and how to adapt a pose if necessary. She will be able to join a regular yoga class in her new hometown. The standing forward bend is the only pose Amaia still avoids as it does not seem helpful and sometimes hurts when coming up. Instead she lengthens her spine in a half forward bend on a raise.

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“Yoga with Bene helped because of the individual attention and because it was tailored to my health condition at that particular moment. Even the group classes are small and we are always asked if there is a new pain or injury or if we want to focus on something in particular. The physiotherapy was a good start but you need something afterwards to continue healing and to keep your back in good condition. Whereas the big group classes in yoga and Pitales often hurt afterwards, I have never experienced pain after a yoga session with Bene. The sessions always made me feel calmer, and she also motivates us to do the right exercises and movements in between classes. My back is pain free now!”

Amaia had two mild relapses since starting yoga with me, both after long car journeys. In both cases she knew what to do, which movements (including some yoga movements) to avoid and which yoga movements to do to recover quickly. The worst pain left after a few days and after a few individual sessions, she could soon resume my back care yoga class again. Indeed, doing yoga therapy twice a week will not guarantee a life-long pain-free back, but the relapses are more likely to be minor. Tailored yoga is helping Amaia to be strong and flexible and lead a normal, active life.

Can you relate to Amaia’s story? Do hit reply and let us know your biggest challenge and what has helped you most.

The following blogs describe some of the poses that helped Amaia. Click to read more about:
restorative pose
abdominal exercises
leg raises

Namaste

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