Stress and sitting still for long periods can have an influence

Photo of two men chatting (Cathy Yeulet / Hemera / Thinkstock) Arnold, 48 years old 

“I had pain in my lower right back, around the third lumbar vertebra. The pain spread down my right leg into my toes. My leg then started feeling numb and my toes felt tingly.”

Nine years ago I was playing soccer one day with friends. I can remember that the ground was really dry and I wasn’t wearing appropriate shoes. I made a sudden movement and at first I thought that one of my vertebrae had become locked or something like that. But it didn’t get any better. In fact, it got worse and worse over the next day.

I had pain in my lower right back, around the third lumbar vertebra. The pain spread down my right leg into my toes. My leg then started feeling numb and my toes felt tingly. And then I couldn’t move my foot properly anymore. I could no longer stand on my tiptoes or heels.

So I went to the doctor. He said I had a slipped disk and referred me to a hospital with an orthopedic and neurology department. They did a computer tomography scan and measured how much of my foot was still supplied by the nerves. They found out that there was a problem with the nerve pathways.

Deciding against surgery

The doctors all agreed that we should try conservative treatment first. So that’s what we did. We also discussed the option of surgery. I looked into that and found out that surgery doesn’t always help. The doctors left the decision up to me. I decided to try a more conservative approach first. I saw surgery as a last resort, if the pain didn’t get any better with physiotherapy and time.

I took painkillers and didn’t go to work for a few weeks. I had physiotherapy, which mainly involved exercises, strength training and balance training. And I did various things at home too. For instance, I put my legs up, roughly at right angles, with the help of a large cube. The pain gradually went away and I was able to go back to work. I had been on sick leave for about eight weeks.

I saw my ability to climb stairs as a measure of how bad the problem was. If I didn’t have enough strength in my foot, I used to pull that leg up the steps. At first I couldn’t lift that leg up onto the next step at all, I just didn’t have enough strength. But nowadays I can. It was hard to accept, though: no longer being able to do something that I used to do without thinking about it.

Sedentary work and not much exercise

I mainly work in an office and spend a lot of time sitting. That’s not particularly good for my back. Since the soccer incident the problem keeps coming back for a few days every now and then. But so far it hasn’t gotten as bad as it was back then.

The type of chair you sit on makes a difference, I find. We recently got new office chairs and my problem has improved quite a lot since.

Unfortunately I don’t do sports regularly at the moment, partly because of my working hours, which change constantly. I hope that situation improves soon so that I can get more regular exercise. I find swimming particularly good, and it helps to relieve tension.

Problems after the slipped disk

At the moment there’s no real pattern with the pain: I might have a phase of seven to eight months where I don’t have any problems at all, but then I might get it twice within three months. On average, though, I’d say I get it about once a year. Sometimes the pain spreads right down to the lower part of my leg, and even into my toes. But I don’t have any numbness anymore. The pain often feels like someone is stabbing me in the back with a small knife.

I sometimes take painkillers for the pain, but only if it is affecting my everyday activities. I don’t want to take them regularly, but they do help sometimes. Other than that, I use the large cube to put my legs up when I am in pain. That really helps. Lying in that position takes the strain off my back.

I generally have sick leave during “pain phases”. When I’m in pain I have two options: put up with it or take painkillers. Neither of them help me concentrate at work. I no longer feel that I am completely in control and I end up in danger of making mistakes. And I can’t sit for long during those phases either. Walking, standing or lying down are then much better than sitting.

Pain out of the blue

Sometimes I have this pain after making quite normal movements, like bending over the bathtub and standing up straight again. Then it hits me and the pain shoots down my leg. That only rarely happens when I make movements where I’d expect it to happen – like when I twist my body or something. It usually happens when I do normal stuff. Sometimes it also happens when I get up in the morning after sleeping in an awkward position. Then it comes out of the blue.

In my case the problem is caused by a combination of stress at work and the strain of sitting for long periods of time. I’m pretty sure that plays a role.

I’m very happy that I’ve gotten off so lightly so far. You hear of people who have such bad cases of slipped disk that they can’t move properly at all and can only crawl around on all fours. Luckily that wasn’t the case with me. But it did become clear to me that something in my back was now damaged and that I’ll probably always have problems with it every now and then.

I’m happy at the moment, and things are looking up. I don’t play soccer anymore because that sometimes involves movements that you can’t control all that well. I’m worried I’d end up doing more damage, so I avoid it. I’d much rather go swimming again in the future. Swimming makes me feel good, and it’s easy on your joints.

 

Acknowledgement

Our real-life stories summarize interviews with people who are affected by the medical condition. Our interview partners have given us permission to publish their stories. We would like to express our sincere thanks to them.

The real-life stories give an insight into how other people cope and live with a medical condition. Their opinions and comments are not recommendations by IQWiG.

Please note: The names of our interview partners have been changed to protect their identity. The photos are of models.