Michelle Mudd, 41, an
Edwardsville, Ill. resident, vividly remembers the night she lost all feeling in her legs. It was
2 a.m., and Mudd had been helping her daughter back to bed after using the bathroom. When she returned to bed, her legs gave way, rendering her completely immobile on the bedroom floor.
“Up until then, I had had my share of major back pain, but this time, I was totally numb,” recalled Mudd. “My husband was out of town, so I told my son to call 911 for an ambulance. It was really frightening.”
When she got to the hospital, an MRI revealed that Mudd had ruptured a disc in her lower back.
She was concerned, but wasn’t exactly surprised by the diagnosis. After all, she had a long history of back problems. Mudd was a former gymnast turned personal trainer. She maintained a very active lifestyle. An avid long-distance runner, Mudd competed in several marathons. She also taught kick boxing and boot camp classes.
When she was 29, Mudd underwent her first back surgery – a lumbar spinal fusion of L4 and L5 – to immobilize a painful vertebral segment. The surgery was successful, eliminating Mudd’s back pain so she could return to her active lifestyle. The effects lasted approximately 10 years. During that time, Mudd continued working as a personal trainer and gave birth to her second child.
However, three months before the
2 a.m. episode, Mudd began experiencing noticeable setbacks.
“I felt pain in my right leg and struggled to bend over. I also had lost a great deal of flexibility,” recalled Mudd. “The week before I was hospitalized, I suddenly found myself nearly immobilized by the pain.”
What’s a Herniated Disc?
These symptoms are often the tell-tale signs of a ruptured disc (also known as a herniated disc). Healthy discs act as shock absorbers for the spine, encouraging flexibility. On the other hand, when discs are damaged due to injury, disease or aging, they may rupture. This is actually one of the most common causes of back pain. In fact, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, approximately one of every four back pain patients has a herniated disc.
“With a herniated disc, pain occurs when the disc places pressure on the nerve roots or spinal cord, causing numbness in the area of the body served by that nerve,” explained David Robson, MD, a spine surgeon at Missouri Baptist.
“For example, if the ruptured disc occurs in the lower back, it may cause sciatica, leading to leg pain, weakness, numbness or tingling in one leg. It can also be felt in the buttock and down the back of the leg to the ankle or foot.”
When a Herniated Disc Requires Medical Attention.
Most herniated discs will heal over time without surgery. Generally, less than 10 percent of cases require surgical intervention. However, herniated discs shouldn’t be ignored, especially if the pain worsens.
In severe cases of nerve root compression – known as cauda equina syndrome – a herniated disc can result in the loss of bladder and/or bowel control, requiring immediate medical attention.
Resorting to Spinal Fusion Surgery.
In Mudd’s case, her ruptured disc had progressed into cauda equina syndrome. Dr. Robson was concerned with how quickly her condition had deteriorated, so he immediately admitted Mudd to the hospital and scheduled her for spinal fusion surgery.
“I couldn’t believe the extent of the nerve damage that Michelle had sustained,” recalled Dr. Robson.
Dr. Robson asked David Kennedy, MD, a neurosurgeon at Missouri Baptist, to collaborate on Mudd’s surgery. During the two-and-a-half hour surgery, Dr. Robson and Dr. Kennedy successfully removed the herniated disc, fused the spine from L5 to S1, and placed four major screws for greater stability. Mudd then stayed at the hospital for several days before being discharged home with instructions for eight weeks of physical therapy.
The Road to Recovery.
“Immediately after surgery, I still had a little numbness,” said Mudd. “Fortunately, within two to three weeks, my left leg was completely fine. My right leg still has some numbness, but I have total mobility and am able to do virtually any activity.”
With her personal training background and active lifestyle, Mudd opted to oversee her own physical therapy. Per Dr. Robson’s instructions, she performed certain exercises every day for more than two months.
Mudd’s recovery went so well, she returned to personal training within a few months. Today, she has regained total feeling in her left leg and almost all feeling in the right one. She even walked into her four-week post-operative appointment without the help of a cane or walker. Plus, she no longer takes any medicine, including Tylenol and ibuprofen, for her back pain.
“Michelle is a great example of the best possible outcome after spinal fusion surgery,” said Dr. Robson. “She continues to amaze me with her progress. Most patients realize their full recovery potential within six months to one year after surgery.”
Although her injury forced her to give up marathon running, Mudd has since taken up cycling, ballet barre, yoga and Pilates, to help her stay in shape.
“In my opinion, sitting around is the worst possible thing you can do after having back surgery. Being healthy, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight is key to maximize surgery’s results. Surgery is the first step in getting better…the rest is up to you,” she said.
Today, when she reflects on her back injury, Mudd is thankful that Dr. Robson was able to repair her herniated disc.
“He’s a wonderful doctor, who was truly concerned about me and my well-being. You need that when you’re scared and about to have surgery. And of course, it was reassuring to be operated on by two expert spine surgeons,” she said.
Dr. Robson advises people not to wait if experiencing nagging back pain that interferes with daily activities.
“There are many non-surgical therapies available to help find relief,” advised
Dr. Robson. “Our goal is to help patients navigate their conditions and symptoms – from the simplest to the most complicated – and work together to figure out the best treatment options.”
David Robson, MD, is board-certified in orthopedics and chief of surgery at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. He received his medical degree, and completed his internship and residency at St. Louis University School of Medicine. He completed a fellowship in spine surgery at the Cleveland Hospital.
David Kennedy, MD, is board-certified in neurosurgery and on staff at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. He received his medical degree and completed his residency at St. Louis University School of Medicine. He did his internship at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB.