I'm new to the Spine Health forum, so please forgive me if I overlooked a message thread that dealt with this topic. And please forgive the length of the message. I figured more information might offer more comparisons with people who have suffered the same injury.
I'm a 35-year-old male who was just diagnosed with a severely herniated L4-L5 disc. The injury most likely occurred on January 1, 2011, when I decided to playfully pick up my wife and then swung around. I immediately knew that something was wrong with my back, but the pain wasn't horrendous, so I more-or-less ignored it, continued to work out in the gym, and even went to Italy for two weeks on a research trip, all the while assuming that the pain was negligible and the occasional numbness in my left foot was due to my shoes being too tight. What can I say, I was completely ignorant of the physiology of my spine or what had really happened, and the pain and the numbness completely subsided on their own.
Fast forward to two months ago on October 2, 2011, when completely out of the blue I woke up and could barely move. I had sciatica pain radiating down both legs (more so on the left), small portions of my left foot were going numb, and, as I discovered the following week, my left calf was starting to lose muscle strength. An MRI confirmed that I had a 1 cm (massive) herniation at the L4-L5 level and the ruptured disc material had migrated 1.9 cm cranially (up my spine). The herniation was not only affecting my sciatic nerve but also my cauda equina nerves, but I have never manifested any signs of cauda equina syndrome.
My GP has informed me that a herniation of this size almost always requires surgery to repair; both a neurologist and a neurosurgeon viewed my MRI and recommended a discectomy; and the physical therapist I was supposed to see doesn't think he can help me with such a large herniation. I have spent countless hours researching my condition, and while I was waiting to see the neurosurgeon (a 6-week wait) I decided to try to treat myself, exploring various options such as inversion therapy (I bought a Teeter Hang-Ups table), therapeutic massage, acupuncture, one stretch from the McKenzie method and two yoga stretches for the piriformis and hip flexors, and now I am virtually pain free throughout the day. Let me clarify, though. I'm nowhere near 100%. I still can't run, go to the gym, or be nearly as active as I was before the injury. I have to be very, very careful about how I move, but there is no real need for painkillers anymore, and I can walk long distances without any problems.
But here's my question to those of you who have dealt with this far longer than I have and can hopefully offer some wisdom and support: Is it even possible for me to "cure" myself through these conservative methods or am I simply postponing the inevitable? The neurosurgeon thinks I need surgery sooner than later because he's concerned that I could get cauda equina syndrome if my herniated disc pushes out even further into the nerves. And even though I feel like I have made enormous improvement over the last two months, the neurosurgeon thinks that my "improvement" is simply my nerves becoming less sensitive to pain. If so, it happened awfully suddenly after I started doing therapeutic massage and stretching, which makes me think he's wrong. To be perfectly honest, I'm scared, depressed, and feeling a little hopeless. My insurance has a very high deductible, so the surgery itself is a bit of a financial burden. I could deal with that, though, if I knew that I wasn't heading down a road of more surgeries that result in a spinal fusion in my 40s or 50s, something the neurosurgeon thinks is inevitable. Are there any success stories out there for treating a massive bilateral herniation with conservative measures? And if not, is there anyone out there who can offer a success story of a discectomy that has allowed them to return to "normal" life for five years or more? I'm trying not to catastrophize my diagnosis, but I kind of feel like the neurosurgeon just gave me a death sentence for how my spine is going to deteriorate in the coming years. Any advice would be heartily welcomed.