Image Credit: Getty Images / Thomas Barwick
Woman enjoying open sea swimming to help with back pain

How Chronic Back Pain Led to Self-Discovery and New Loves

Reading time | 4 mins
When Life Effects contributor, Megan Potts, was diagnosed with a herniated disc, her active lifestyle was turned upside down. 
Once an avid hiker, even everyday tasks like sleeping and shopping became ruled by chronic pain. Megan felt like her freedom had been snatched away - until she discovered cold water swimming and a group of supportive friends. Here's her story. 

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I've struggled with pain in my lower back for as long as I can remember. 

Countless trips to my GP were met with medication and the declaration I was "too young" for it to be anything serious. I was told to "rest more" and "get more exercise." To use "cold compresses" but to "wrap up warm." To take my medication "when needed, but don't take it too often."

Over the last 12 months, my despondence turned to despair as I watched my mobility deteriorate. Some changes happened overnight, while others were more gradual. My hiking boots lay in the corner, forlorn and gathering dust. Shopping is now ordered exclusively online, as the 5-minute walk to the local corner shop causes me to shake with pain. 

I begged my doctors to listen to me, as the only pain I've come close to this was labor. My nights were, and are, filled with disturbed sleep, staring at the ceiling because I can never find a comfortable position. 

But, after all the appointments, investigations, and worry, I've found a specialist who's given me the answers I need.

Herniated discs can happen at any age

I have a bulging, or herniated, disc at the base of my spine, putting pressure on my spinal cord. Suddenly, things are starting to make sense. 

The back and spine make up the framework of the body. Without your spine, you wouldn't have structure, support, or flexibility. The spine also protects your spinal cord, a nerve column that connects your brain with the rest of your body. 

In my case, a bulging or herniated disc means a problem with a gel-like cushion between two vertebrae (the 33 bones that make up the spine). These cushions or discs are made of a jelly-like substance in the middle, with a more rigid, rubbery exterior. When a disc is herniated, some gel-like center is pushed through a rip or tear on the outside "annulus."

A bulging disc can irritate a nearby nerve, causing pain (check), numbness (check), and weakness in an arm or leg (check). Sometimes, it can cause no noticeable symptoms at all. 

The impact the pain has on my body and mind

I'm unlucky. I stumble a lot when the pain is at its worst, gathering bruises as I try to get my legs to cooperate. My toes start to tingle when I walk to the local shop, and the stairs can be terrifying when one of my legs goes numb.

It's really easy to spiral when I think about the things I've lost due to my pain. I used to love hiking - nothing compared to the feeling of summiting a mountain. I would walk for miles through cities, taking delight in the things I'd usually miss if I was on a train or bus. Sometimes, I'm sure I won't ever be able to do those things again. I long for the silence and tranquillity of sitting on a mountaintop. I miss the freedom I found in the silence. I miss pushing my strength and endurance, seeing how far I could go. 

But, today, I went for a swim in the sea. This is something I've been doing for around a year now. I started because I found myself craving adventure, something to remind myself I was alive - but without causing further pain, like it would climbing a mountain. 

Despite the pain, I’m grateful for what’s happened since

When I came out of the water that first time, I took a deep breath and realized I hadn't just lost things - I've gained a lot, too, through my pain. I've found a group of exceptional, kind, supportive friends who've kept me safe when I felt like my pain and mental health were too much to bear. These friends sacrificed their evenings to come and get me out of my flat, ensuring I was safe and had people I loved around me.

I've also fallen in love with the sea. No matter how awful my day has been, how much pain I'm in, or how many arguments I've had, the sea welcomes me in, and I get some respite. My pain is washed away for that hour, my mind is calm, and I'm smiling again. There really is nothing quite like it.

I've also found a home I'm happy with because I wanted to move closer to the sea. Hurrah! 

All the challenges have made me a stronger person

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I've learned how and when to ask for help. This was the most difficult - and yet most rewarding - lesson by far. My past does not lend this to being comfortable for me. I grew up around domestic violence and fell into the arms of several abusers in my early adulthood. Trust doesn't come easily.

Then, this year, I realized that some people do good, helpful things without expecting a reward. It's been a challenging year in so many ways. Still, when I take stock of everything that's happened, I feel that I've met better people and become a stronger person myself.

I won't ever be thankful for the pain - that would take some mental gymnastics. But I'm grateful for the journey, the self-reflection, and the emerging peace that came with it. 

Note: The information presented is solely for educational purposes. It is not intended as specific advice for managing back pain or mental health issues such as anxiety and/or depression. Please consult with a professional who can apply best practices and appropriate resources to your situation.

NPS-ALL-NP-00649 SEPTEMBER 2022