Thankful for Healing

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’m thankful for the healing in my body this year.  The year isn’t over, nor is the healing, but it’s still something to be thankful for!

I’m at a touch over 3 months post spinal fusion.  My spine is held together by 6 screws and 3 rods, plus cages in the disk space between vertebrae L4-L5, and L5-S1.  Oh, and bone matter.  The goal is that everything will be held together by solid bone, and the titanium of course.  I will see my surgeon again next week, and expect a good report from him.

I’ve been in physical therapy for 6 weeks now.  Danielle is finally back, and she has been working me hard!  We have a couple areas of focus:  my hips and pelvis, and my upper back.  She wants increased movement and flexibility in my upper spine so I’m doing a lot of stretching and rotation work in my shoulders and upper rib cage, rotating from the bottom of my rib cage to look over my shoulders, and reach across my chest.   My hips and glutes are working as well to give me stability in my pelvis to support my sacrum and low back.  During my PT sessions, Danielle has me working on the Pilates reformer – doing a lot of squats in various positions to work specific muscles both in my hips and glutes, but also in my lower abs.  We are working on the flexibility of my low back (those muscles got VERY tight after surgery) while keeping my spine itself in a neutral position, but also stretching my hamstrings and hips.  Everything has been very tight because of years of chronic pain and moving in “defensive and protective” mode.  So I’m doing lots of stretches each day, as well as muscle building activities.  Danielle has also been working on helping the nerves to heal by loosening their paths as well as stretching them.  I have a series of “neural flossing” stretches and movements that are working like a charm.  Nerves heal so slowly, but I am noticing changes in my symptoms, so I know what I’m doing is helping!  Also, Danielle has been great about helping me modify and get comfortable in different yoga poses to help me get back into regular routines.  Best of all, she’s given me confidence to start really pushing my healing forward.

I’ve kind of turned the corner from being in a very protective healing mode and being extremely careful, almost fearful, about doing something to put my surgery in jeopardy – to pushing hard and moving much more.  My stamina is increasing, both muscular and cardio.  I can walk comfortably for a lot longer – it’s not just one slow gentle walk to the driveway, but 3 trips back and forth at a quick pace.  I’m noticing more muscle strength in the muscle groups we’ve been working on, but still need to focus on really engaging the RIGHT muscles to do the exercises, not what my body has been compensating with for years.  I laughed when Danielle said I have some really bossy muscles that need to take a back seat to the ones who are supposed to be working.  I won’t see her next week, but I will continue with my home exercises and yoga practices for hip and sacrum stability.  I have scheduled once a week check ins with her through the end of the year.  I’m doing much better – but I’m not “back to normal” yet, so therapy with guided exercises will help me get there.  Re-training muscles is hard work, in case you were wondering!

I’ve got a lot to be thankful for this year, but I really am thankful for the body God gave me and how resilient it is.  I pray you each have blessings abounding that you are also giving thanks for.

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Counting Recovery

It is not quite 2 months since my surgery.  If you count days of the month, then tomorrow is 2 months.  If you count weeks, today is the end of the 9th week of spinal fusion recovery.  If you count weeks another way, Monday marks the start of the week 9-10 of recovery.  It’s kind of like vertebrae and disks – if the day is the vertebrae – and the disks are weeks – there is a week before and a week after.  I think at this point, I’m ready to just start counting MONTHS.

So I’m at 2 Months post op.  As I sit here today recounting my recovery, and reflecting on my progress – I feel “pretty good”.  I’ve made tons of progress of course, like I talked last week – no more walker, cane, back brace.  My discomfort is manageable.  I recognize that I have physical limits on what I can do, and my body does a good job of telling me when I’m pushing those limits.  But if I don’t do a bit of pushing, I won’t make progress, and I understand that too.

What am I doing?  Well, since you asked…I’m using a fitness tracker app to track my steps and other activities throughout the day.  It varies by day, but I generally get some combination that adds up to 6500 or so steps.  I don’t know the algorithm or logarithm that tells it that 15 minutes of stretching equals 1321 steps, but I look at it from an “overall activity level” .  For the record…that’s up from 250 steps a day the first week after surgery! Ha!!!  Anyway, I got on my exercise bike yesterday for 10 minutes, I did a 20ish minute yoga video and about 5 minutes of additional back stretches, and ended the day with a grand total of 6618 calculated steps for the day.  I try and use my lunch hour at work to go for a quick 10-15 walk, and then a gentle yoga video and some stretches.  The rest of what I do is just my moving around at work and home.  I’m trying to get into a routine of getting on my exercise bike more – since that is easier on my feet than tons of walking.  But mornings…ugh.  Trying to find the discipline to get up a little bit earlier every couple of days and pedal while the coffee brews…that’s my goal.  I enjoy my yoga during lunch time as well.

Last year while considering my fitness level, and my back pain level, I was researching yoga – but honestly, as a Christian, I was feeling a little bothered by the “Eastern Philosophy of Yoga” – the chanting and ooooohhhhhmmmmm – the stereotype I assigned in my head to what I thought about yoga.  And then I stumbled on a website that was Christian yoga practice.  Lots of information, some time in prayer, and a few websites later, I had reset my internal bias, and was ready to spend some focused time on a yoga mat WITH GOD.  And so for the last many months, I have been combining bible study, prayer, and yoga to my lunch time routine.  My favorite website and “teacher” is at www.carolinewilliamsyoga.com .  I’ve even exchanged emails with this beautiful woman, and she is by far my favorite Christian yoga video instructors.  A few of her guided meditations got me through a couple of rough nights early in my recovery, too.  Having that spiritual, faith-filled connection was vital when I needed to get through a pain flare.  Anyway, there is actually quite a community of Christian yogis out there.  If you too have been reluctant to think about yoga – I encourage you to do your own research, but I would hope that just watching one of Caroline’s many videos and listening to her bible study and prayer in EVERY PRACTICE, will convince you that just maybe, yoga might be a good fit for you too.

Alright, so next week I have my first appointment with my physical therapist.  She incidentally is also a yoga instructor, just FYI.  When I worked with her before for an issue with my upper back/shoulder she had me doing some yoga stretches then as well.  I hope that while working with her, I can get some tips about what modifications I can make to some poses, as I regain some strength, stability, and flexibility in recovering from this surgery.  I’m sure she’ll have me doing more than just yoga, but I’m hopeful we can work towards a sustainable long term plan to help me keep my back as strong and comfortable as possible.

Balancing – 7 weeks post op

It’s been 7 full weeks since surgery to fuse my spine from L4 to S1.  My incision is well healed – not that people see it, heck I don’t even see it unless I turn just right and look in a mirror over my shoulder.  I run my fingers along it as I wash in the shower, and it’s smooth and doesn’t hurt to touch it.  I can rub lotion over it after my shower with no complaints either.  Gentle pressure around the surgical site is fine, the muscles seem to be fine underneath and I don’t feel anything “weird”.  When I had my toe fused a few years ago, the hardware is just under the skin – so I can visually see the plate and a couple of the screws in my foot – and obviously I can feel them under the skin.  Not the same with my back.  I’ve got a layer of skin, (fat), and muscle that covers my spine and therefore the screws and rods that are holding my spine into place.  Plus, there is bone kind of packed all around it like modeling clay that will ultimately add even more strength and stability.  If you read on the internet, you will hear that the first 3 months after fusion are critical for allowing the fusion to “set”, but you are not completely fused for more like a year, year and a half.  So, while 7 weeks sounds impressive…I’ve got a LONG road of healing ahead of me.

But really, I’ve come a LONG way already!  The first week, I could barely walk.  I used a walker most of the time and relied on a back brace any time I had to get up.  I couldn’t get out of the recliner without help, and it was a monumental effort to get onto the toilet, and back off of it.  One week post op I needed the walker to get up and back down from sitting – in the recliner or on the toilet – but I could walk without it (it was pretty handy for carrying stuff from the kitchen to the chair though!) I still used the back brace constantly when I was up.  I started walking up and down my driveway, with a cane, and I managed to actually cook a few meals.  Two weeks post op I was starting to feel more normal and steady on my feet – but my surgeon wanted me to wean off the use of the cane, and the back brace.  So I worked on that, and I started to drive a little bit too.  I also started to actually sleep in bed for a few hours each night.  It was hard to re-position during the night, but it was nice to be completely horizontal for a few hours.  Three weeks was acclimating to walking more and preparing to go back to work, finding clothes that I could wear, and getting as much rest as possible.  Four weeks post op I was back to work where the biggest challenge was making the drive in and home each day.  I worked short days, but they still felt long!  I also was allowed to begin doing stretches for my back and start to strengthen some of the muscles.    Five weeks post op, was still short work days, but I was feeling more and more comfortable and while I knew it would be a long and challenging day to teach my seminar that Friday – I felt like I was ready.  It zapped my energy, but I was glad to be teaching and feeling good enough to BE teaching.  I was also learning to recognize the necessity of resting – not just sitting at my desk with an ice pack, but truly resting.  Six weeks post op, I pushed through a long drive and teaching again, but had some girl time and rest with one of my favorite friends and her daughter, took time out for a massage, and an afternoon for more girl time with another favorite friend.  I also got the clearance from my surgeon to “do more” – return to things I’d been doing “pre surgery” like yoga and riding my exercise bike.

So it’s nearing the end of 7 weeks post op, and I’m sitting here feeling a little sorry for myself.  In my well established pattern of being a chronic over-achiever, I pushed my limits this week.  I had lots to get done, and not a lot of time to accomplish it.  So while I did sit in my chair in my office with ice on my back, and I did go for walks at lunch time, and I did do my stretches and a few gentle yoga poses, I didn’t actually do much resting.  And my brain was running a million miles an hour, so I didn’t sleep great either.  Add in laundry, housecleaning, dishes, and staying late to teach – and my body rebelled.  Remember last week when I said I am listening to my back and I can tell when I need to move, or get ice, or rest….well, I haven’t been great about that this week.  I’ve been hearing my back protesting – but I’ve not taken steps to calm it down.  Well, not until it screams at me…like it did yesterday.

So this week I’m working on finding the balance.  Using my voice to say no.  Giving myself grace for what I just can’t realistically do right now.  Leaving a little early from work, and using that extra time at home to actually rest – not do the dishes or the laundry – but rest.  I need to finish my book.  I need to write a few overdue thank you notes.  I need to rest – so that I can heal. If you saw me in the grocery store, or walking on campus you probably wouldn’t know that I had back surgery almost 8 weeks ago.  But I did.  I’ve got bones that are needing to heal.  I’ve got ticked off nerves that need to heal.  I’ve got muscles that need to relax so that the nerves will heal.  I’ve got muscles that need to rest before they will get stronger.  I can’t rush this process for my own convenience – and I really do need to listen to the subtle cues my back gives me.  What do I need most?  Rest.

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