According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, between 60% and 80% of people will experience lower back pain at some point in their lives, and a high percentage of those people will have lower back pain caused by a herniated disk. Risk factors for a herniated disc include age and gender (30-50 year-old men are most susceptible), being overweight, and improper lifting.
Treatment for a herniated disc, particularly one in the lower back, is usually limited to pain relief; the back will usually heal on its own, and so the care for the patient revolves around reducing discomfort and improving the conditions for recovery. Painkillers and anti-inflammatory pills, coupled with physiotherapy and exercise, are de rigeur. Unless things get worse, a patient’s only course of action is, in fact, patience.
The idea of a herniated disc was foreign to me when I walked into the doctor’s office this past weekend, complaining of excruciating back pain. Even with my usually-high pain threshold, this lower back pain was strong enough to wake me from sleep, so a trip to the clinic was necessary. I left the office with a prescription for a bunch of pills and an order not to spend too much time lying around in bed — as if that was even an option in my mind. (I texted my personal trainer immediately after asking him if we could resume workouts; he wisely told me to relax for a few days instead of rushing back into things.)
Still unsure at what a herniated disc was, I turned to a particularly delicious description from the Mayo Clinic:
A spinal disk is a little like a jelly donut, with a softer center encased within a tougher exterior. Sometimes called a slipped disk or a ruptured disk, a herniated disk occurs when some of the softer “jelly” pushes out through a crack in the tougher exterior.
My jelly donut had started leaking, and the only thing I could do to fix it was to wait it out. Not used to waiting without taking action, I forced myself to pause, take a deep breath, and accept the necessary course of action.
This has been my mantra throughout the year: pause, take a deep breath, and then move forward from there. It is seemingly simple, but remarkably hard to consciously do.
At the start of the year, when I chose “breathe” as my word for 2015, I felt as though life was flying past me too quickly:
Consciously taking a breath allows us to pause, take stock, assess, experience, and recover. A breath is the punctuation at the end of one of life’s phrases, and a conscious breath is an opportunity to go back over that sentence, that experience, and understand it for what it was.
Breathe is an apt word for the year ahead: I am entering a year full of lots of big changes. It will be easy to breeze through those changes without taking a moment to reflect on what they mean, to assess where I was and where I am going. A reminder to breathe will give me that pause.
When something goes wrong, a breath will remind me that there is always resolution to a problem. When something frustrates me, a breath will remind me to be patient. When something delights me, a breath will remind me to enjoy that delight, in that moment.
I will remind myself to pause, to reflect, and to be intentional. I will take a breath before I speak, before I act, before I decide, before I move on.
Life, in 2015, didn’t just fly by. Because of that breath, that punctuation at the end of a phrase, I have been able to reflect, appreciate, consider. When times were bad, I used that breath to collect myself and remind myself that things will get better. When times were good, I used that breath to give thanks, to soak in the beauty in the events around me.
This year has been marked by big breaths: the gasps of delight when I first saw my wife on our wedding day, the slow inhales before my first day at the new job, the sighs of contentment every day when I come home to someone I love after a day of doing work that invigorates me.
We all breathe to survive, and we do it autonomously; this year, I have been reminding myself to breathe consciously, concertedly, and with intention.
The back pain in the morning, once the respite of the painkillers taken the night before has faded away, is intense, almost unbearable. It is in those moments of intense pain that I am most conscious of my breath—slow, deep, and focused—and when I am most thankful that I can control it to provide some reprieve and solace.
It would be easy to be angry at this injury, coming so close to the new year and hindering any romjul plans I may have had. Instead, I am at peace with it, understanding that this was my body’s way of reminding me to take pause and reflect.
When the pain strikes, I breathe deeply to cope with its arrival; when it subsides, I breathe deeply to recompose myself. With every breath I am reminded of the year that has gone by, a marked by big events, big changes, and big breaths.
The back pain will pass, soon. The memories, emotions, and sentiments of this past year will linger, a remembrance in every inhalation, in every exhalation.