Things I learnt one year after Back Surgery

This post is dedicated to my incredible family, friends and loved ones who have helped me recover from back surgery. Thank you.

This week marked one year since I had emergency surgery for a slipped disk in my back and suspected Cauda Equina syndrome. To celebrate the occasion, D and I went for a 15km hike in the Bukit Timah nature reserve here in Singapore. It was great to be outside again and be active - we raced up and down hills and spotted snakes and monkeys and iguanas. It felt good to defy my doctor who had told me it would take a much longer period of time before I would be able to hike or run such a distance ;)

As D and I were walking and talking, she suggested that it would be a good idea for me to share some of my learnings over the last year about recovery, health and mobility. We have a few friends who are currently suffering from back problems so I guess the following list of things is to help them and anyone else who is battling chronic back pain and mobility issues. Hope it helps!

Disc-ursive Learnings from Back Surgery (The One Year Refresh)

1. Surgery is not that bad. Do not be scared.
I delayed surgery for a year because I was scared of the side effects. If it was not for surgery, I would not have just done a 15km hike over the hills and through the rain. Orthopaedic surgeons know what they are doing and no-one should have to live a life in chronic pain. If you have tried everything else and still cannot lead a normal life then just let the doctors do what they do best.

2. Ditch the meds. The drugs don't work.
Doctors in the US and Singapore have a tendency to overmedicate patients recovering from back surgery. The horrible cocktail of meds that I was given included the gruesome Lyrica and the ghastly Tramodol - it took me about 48 hours to realise I did not want to take them and I have not touched them since. While levels of pain vary between different people, I found it useful to use the pain as a sign of how much or little I could manage. It became the best measure to know whether I was trying to hurry my recovery along too quickly.

3. Dedicate a few hours a week to doing pilates and get a good physio.
They will become your best friend. I have been attending Focus Pilates (tell them I sent you..!) twice a week for a year and we have been working on building core strength, improving flexibility and creating a training plan to get back to action (I have signed up for a judo tournament for October of this year - it might be a little ambitious but it is good to have something to aim for!)

4. If you work in an office, ditch your chair immediately and get a standing desk.
This HBR article will tell you way more eloquently than I ever could why sitting for 10 hours a day is not good for human beings. Long-distance flights are also not the best thing to do when you have back pain. I just came back from a 26 hour journey to Las Vegas - I was in a dilemma as to whether I should have flown and 6 months ago I would definitely have not done the trip.

5. Measure everything and build good rituals.
This might be the nerdy tech-loving side of me but I found it really useful to measure everything and see under what conditions I felt better. A couple of great apps that I used both while at home and while travelling are myfitnesspal (to ensure I ate enough protein) and bikeintervalclock (to ensure bike workouts are effective). It is great if you can start everyday with a pint of water, 15 minutes of stretching and a vitamin pill to accelerate your healing.

6. Stay Active. Keep Moving.
Recovering from surgery does not have to mean a complete lack of exercise and activity. It is important to walk and swim as much as possible. With the right physio advice, you can gradually work more and more activities back into your routine. I started playing tennis again 3 months ago and hope to play football before the summer. I might just leave the bullfighting and cagefighting until early 2014....!

7. Be Selfish. Say No if you need to.
I like to be out and about with friends and for the first time in my life I found myself feeling very anti-social and not too keen on going to noisy bars and restaurants. If you feel the same, please do not give yourself a hard time about. This is the time when you need to be most selfish and do what feels best. Real friends and loving family will understand this and they are the best recovery aid you could ever wish for. Invite everyone around to your place if you are really bored (presuming they are cool with you lying down in your pyjamas doing weird stretches!)

8. Spend time and money on good weekly massages
One of the beauties of living in SE Asia is the cheap and easy access to foot reflexology. All the money I would have spent on socialising has been much better spent on a weekly foot massage. Reflexology gets blood flowing to limbs where blood circulation may have been affected by surgery. The old men at Mr Lim Foot Massage are always good for some xenophobic banter and political debate.

9. Use the downtime to make some changes
There is no better time than surgery recovery time to change some things or learn some new things. I used my recovery time to build mobile apps, read about nutrition, change my diet, re-learn how to swim and get back into public speaking/speechwriting. You never know what new things a good combination of boredom, curiosity and pain relief medicine can wander upon...!

10. Share your story and what works for you
Sufferers of back pain and slipped discs are like an underground brethren. Once you talk to a couple of people, you suddenly realise that many many people are silently suffering from chronic back pain. Many face a stigma of being young and ashamed about having mobility issues that are generally stereotyped for older people. I would encourage you to share whatever works for you because only you know how much pain such a condition can cause and there will always be someone who was like you a year ago and desperately in need of relief and advice.

I hope this post helps you if you are suffering from back pain or are recovering from any kind of surgery.