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MRI, Back Pain, Herniated Disc, and Running

    📂 Health,Running-hiking     #     🗨 10 Comments

MRI, Lower Back Pain, Herniated Disc, and RunningIf you are an avid runner, you know that occasional pain is just a part of the activity. It comes in different intensities and it affects different parts of the body. Sometimes it's in the knee, other times it's in the foot, sometimes it's from a strained muscle, and other times it's in a joint.

Take a look at my recent MRI and it's not hard to tell where my pain was coming from. Even my kids had no trouble spotting it. Mind you, my doctor is yet to see this on my next visit, but odds are he'll zero in on this anomaly too.

The ordeal started about 4 months ago. At first it was a pulling and tightening sensation in my left hamstring. As time progressed it became painful, specially on long jogs and the hilly parts of my route. I would just attribute it to a strained muscle, yet strangely the hamstring was not tender to the touch. The discomfort would eventually subside, but kept returning with more intensity after each run. In my mind something was clearly wrong, but not bad enough to seek medical help.

Then 2 months later my body decided to send a stronger signal, in the form of a nasty lower back pain. I've had lower back pain before. They would normally hit me every couple of years, and eventually go away after about a week. I would just ignore them and continue with my daily activities, including running.

But this time the pain had no intention of leaving. In fact it kept worsening to a point that I could barely even walk. The hamstring pain was still there, but I was yet to connect the dots. My orthopedic doctor, however did make the connection when I finally decided to pay him a visit. An X-ray revealed no serious problems, so I was given some conditioning exercises, some anti-inflammatory medication and a follow up date.

Slowly the pain began to subside and I started to resume my normal life and running. But a couple of weeks later, just before leaving for a week-long business trip, the pain returned with a vengeance. This was the worse trip I had every been on. There I was in Miami Beach near the beach where I should have been running after work. Instead I was nursing a debilitating pain. I couldn't sit, I couldn't stand, I could barely walk, and I still had my job to do.

Things became even worse when I returned. Getting in and out of the car became a long exercise in pain. Turning in bed at night meant a certain wake-up with a piercing pain. Advil became a candy of choice in copious amounts. Finally I called my doctor again to see him before the follow up date. He discovered a distinct weakness in my left leg as compared to the right one. I believe this condition is known to some as Sciatica. He suspected a herniated disc and ordered an MRI scan, which took place yesterday.

The MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine is truly a marvel of medical technology. It can virtually slice through the body and record images from multiple angles while the patient feels absolutely nothing, except his original pain that brought him there in the first place. Claustrophobics would certainly find the process disconcerting, as do people like me who can't hold still for even a minute. When I had to lie still in that loud coffin-like contraption for some 40 minutes, the desire to move became even more magnified. I don't know how I lasted that long, but somehow I managed to stay still the whole time. Moving around probably would have meant having to stay longer in there for re-scans, and my goal was to escape the mechanical beast as fast as possible.

At the end of the session, I was given a CD-ROM to hand over to my doctor on my next visit. I hadn't intended to browse the CD, but by the time I got home, curiosity (both technical and medical) got the better of me and I started to browse the images. Many of them made no sense to my untrained eyes. I could almost make out the position of the sliced images, but they all looked like a mass of chopped meat to me, until I got to the length-wise sliced images. As I looked closer, I finally spotted the damming evidence, which I have indicated above with a white arrow on the image. Yes, that's really my spine.

I'm no doctor (although I am a son of a darn good pediatrician), but this looks like an unmistakable culprit to me. It may be a herniated or bulging or protruded or slipped or ruptured disc, but it's easy to see how it's pinching the nerve between the L5 and S1 vertebrae. Ok, I googled their names.

Obviously my doctor will have the last word on this when I see him next week, but this evidence is hard to contradict. The good news is that I know the cause of the pain, and the bad news is that I know the cause of the pain. Could this mean the end of my running days? I don't know, at least I hope not. For now I have replaced jogging with the much gentler walking. As depressed as the thought of not running makes me, there's no need for me to dwell on it and become inactive. Life is filled with all kinds of obstacles and personal disappointments. Whatever the case here, mine can be no worse than others'.

*UPDATE: Herniated Disc - 4 Years on - Mar. 2012


  1. I also had a herniated disc. It began with what appeared to be hamstring tension/pain. It took a 5K race and building a porch to take me over the edge. I couldn't sit for over 2 months. Teaching forced me to put a cot in my room in order to rest between teaching classes. I became disabled the first week of Sept. in 2008. I had surgery on October 24, 2008. Immediately after the surgery the pain lessened. In the course of 2 weeks the pain subsided enough that I was able to return to work. It is now mid January and I am back to jogging. I can lift up to 35 lbs. and things continue to progress positively. I ran 5 miles yesterday and was pain free.

    Comment by Jim LovellFord — January 15, 2009 @10:31 pm

  2. What ever happened in your situation. I understand you found your bulging or herniating disk, but did you have surgery, or did it heal on it's own?

    [email protected]

    Comment by Anonymous — July 24, 2009 @7:47 pm

  3. A herniated disc never heals. One can only hope that it shrinks enough to take the pressure off the spinal cord. I am better for the time being and have not needed any injections or surgery.

    There are occasional flare-ups, but so far nothing like the original pain. for the most part I go about my daily routines without much concern, but I do take care not to aggravate it by doing daily exercises and avoiding heavy lifting, etc. Here are a couple of later posts on the subject here and here.

    Comment by rh — July 27, 2009 @12:11 am

  4. How are you and your back doing? It's nearly a year since your last comment on here... Wondering if you've recovered enough to get back to full on running? Disc injuries are a funny breed... I injured my back quite badly about 10 yrs ago, when I was 19, weight-lifting and was out of commission for three+ months with debilitating pain and discomfort. Since then I'm had flare ups on occasion but they were transient and short-lived... This time I've reinjured it and finally had an MRI which showed a 4-6mm herniation of the L4,L5 disc with the L5 nerve being pressed on. The odd thing is, I ran when this happened at 19, and then on-again, off-again I've run since then without any problems (I suppose in hindsight I had slight discomfort resembling a good day now after doing all-out speed sprints)... I'm hoping that my back will recover like it previous did and I can run again (or hike without pain for that matter). I'd be interested to hear how your doing now! 🙂

    Comment by Carla — July 11, 2010 @10:05 am

  5. sorry to hear about your re-injury carla. i'm doing ok and still running. there are good and bad days but relatively speaking, it has been manageable. this is what i do:

    - run (7-10 miles) every other day, alternate with fast walks on other days (~2 miles). i try not to sprint even on good days.

    - exercises and stretches every morning (10-15 min). light stretches every evening.

    - take 1 glucosamine pill daily. not sure if it really does anything but that's another debate.

    - lots of fruits and veggies in diet and no tobacco.

    - no lifting of heavy objects

    can't guarantee if this works for everyone but so far it has worked for me. keeps the weight down and keeps the body in motion. also consistency is important. i don't want to shock my body into something strenuous abruptly. ease into the activity and keep it consistent.

    my only advice is not to jump back into running full on. do some walking, then slowly pick up the pace and then ease into jogging, etc. and stop if it hurts.

    wishing you a quick recovery

    Comment by robert — July 11, 2010 @10:58 am

  6. How can i fix back pain when doing ab exercises?

    Comment by Janney — September 1, 2010 @12:13 pm

  7. After suffering from lower back pain for more than 30 years I tried yoga 4 months ago. Since then I have been to 12 classes and the pain has gone, some times for more than a week.
    The yoga I do is called Iyengar yoga and it works for me.

    Comment by back stretcher — September 27, 2010 @1:44 pm

  8. My fiance keeps having lower back pains and he refuses to have it checked by the doctor. Which brings to the question: Why are men so stubborn?! Haha, kidding. :-p I’ve bookmarked this page so I can let him read it later! Thanks!

    Comment by vancouver electrician — September 27, 2010 @10:04 pm

  9. hi guys,
    🙂 funny to listen about others debilitating pain.. i'm not alone.. some 8 months ago i was working as a mover - pianos in two guys etc.. one day i fell playing hockey and experienced 2 months of worst pain in life.. didn't have to work next half year, was swimming 5 times a week, stretching, 5 months visiting chiropractor because i misaligned my posture by sitting all the time or hopping on left leg.. after all those problems i got in best shape in my life. strenghtening especially trunk with rubber bands, small weights (3 pounds), even practicing soccer. and last week i hurt it again when palying actual game.. i wanted show up little i guess, felt like this injury is over. it's not. my right foot is numb again, lots of pain - specially morning in harmstrings. (my MRI last month showed herniated dist L4 - L5 pressing on nerve)..
    i guess its same for all of us. stretching and strenghtening every damn day, i agree that yoga can do miracles but i havent started full time yet. running when moderate is good - strengthens the middle body, but for sure not sprints or 100 % long run..
    was good to hear about others, thanks and good luck.

    Comment by kamil — June 12, 2011 @9:23 pm

  10. My Friend is also suffering lower back pain last two year and he has join yoga classes before 2 months and he is feeling good and is pain has almost gone.

    Comment by jamesmathew — December 22, 2012 @6:57 am


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