Spinal Fusion: 18 months Later

I tried to write about back surgery on my 1 year anniversary. Multiple drafts came and went on my blog, and I couldn’t find the right words to say. I finally abandoned the effort entirely. I was in a massive funk, and on top of that I felt like my 12 month check-up with the surgeon didn’t go as I had hoped.

Let’s Rewind

In case you only read this one post on my blog, I’ll cover the highlights and throw in some links to the back story.

I had lumbar spinal fusion in late June 2017 to address worsening symptoms of spondylolisthesis. The surgeon used the anterior AND posterior approach (aka incisions in my stomach and back) so he could brace my spine with hardware from BOTH sides. I was literally, even though temporarily, gutted.

In spring of 2017, I began noticing issues with my left leg being numb or painful on bike rides. As it got worse I would lose function, falling over once on the bike during an off-road race. I consulted a doctor, learned I had spondylolisthesis, and was told to limit my activity to what pain and symptoms I could handle. Things rapidly devolved to me spending about 20 hours a day in bed, going to physical therapy to see if we could avoid surgery, but it was no use. I was too far gone. The nerve pain was non-stop, I was falling down the stairs, and I had zero quality of life. My decision was clear — it was time for surgery.

My surgeon warned me that I would want to “find him and kill him” for the first three weeks after my surgery. This wasn’t nearly the exaggeration I hoped it would be. I have never experienced levels of pain and misery like I did after surgery. This procedure isn’t for the weak of heart, and it isn’t an easy cure-all as some would hope.

I gradually regained mobility after spinal fusion. I was fortunate that my doctor let me ride the indoor bicycle 1 week after surgery!

12 Month Check-Up

At the time of my 12 month check-up, I was working a bunch of swing shifts and travelling for work a lot. I was waking up in pain from what I later learned were SI joint issues stemming from surgery. I also wasn’t riding as well as I had hoped.  After completing 165 miles out of a 300 mile “Ride Across Iowa in a Day” attempt, I wanted something better. The surgeon, who I felt had originally said we were doing the extensive surgery so I could ride ultras again, paved and unpaved, quickly cut me off at my appointment and said “DO NOT tell me about it, I do not want to wake up and worry about you in the middle of the night.” Sigh.

Work travel settled down, and I began a renewed focus on the boring but ultimately spine-rectifying physical therapy exercises. They are a specially curated set of core exercises to help me strengthen the weak muscles while “turning off” the dominant ones.  If you’ve seen my quads, you know that my body has a tendency to use some muscles excessively while letting others atrophy.

The motley crew for a recent Saturday gravel ride. All bikes, all riders welcome!

Where am I Now

Now, I’m building in a steady fashion towards a level of health and fitness that I find acceptable.

I’m steadily losing weight (down 18 lbs!!), building my gravel endurance (I’m up to 45 miles!), and my higher end power is growing (600 watt sprints!).  I’m on a Christmas vacation with my kiddo and I’m downhill skiing just like old times, without crushing amounts of pain. Yeah, I’m using the TENS device in the evenings to calm down the nerve pain, and Aleve is my friend, but I’m DOING IT.

What Happens Next

My “big goal” for the winter is to continue steadily growing my gravel miles. I want to bike to my favorite donut shop in Cannon Falls, about 70 miles away via gravel if I take the scenic roads. I’m using my training rides as a reason to host a series of group rides. The last two had 10 folks come out in sub-standard weather conditions.  I LOVE doing things to encourage others to bike and crush their barriers, and this is quite the symbiotic relationship. I have to get out of bed since I know people are waiting for me. The riders get a personal tour of some awesome gravel roads south of the Twin Cities. And bonus, I can feed off of their enthusiasm. 

If I had to sum up the last year and a half, I think back on all the effort, focus, and sacrifices that have happened by me and those around me to get me where I am today. There were so many days I didn’t want to push, didn’t want to go for a walk, do PT, etc. However more often than not, I persevered. It was worth it. If you’re in my shoes, keep going.

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