Adventures in Skiing with a Herniated Disc

My actual spine, with slipped L5 vertebra

The last time I even mentioned skiing – my favorite winter pastime – was back in mid-December, when I reported that I’d been diagnosed with what was later called a simple herniated disc (actual x-ray to the right).

At that time, I was told not to ski.

On the barely-bright side, Mother Nature was apparently looking out for me, because for much of the time since then, the snow conditions have not been particularly great.

In the meantime, I was able to get my pain under control with plenty of rest and a cortisone injection, and my physical therapist eventually gave me the green light to work out in the gym, focusing on strengthening my core in order to better support my lumbar.

For the past three weeks, I diligently made it to the gym on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, started feeling stronger and stronger, and in the past two weeks, conditions started to improve at the ski areas.

Finally, as I mentioned in a recent post about beleaguered vacation plans, in a desperate attempt to hobble together a measly 3-night getaway,  I succumbed to the call of the slopes, and headed up to Hemlock Valley Resort with the family this past weekend.

Hemlock, while nowhere near as well-known and popular as other ski areas in the region, is very nice, small, family-oriented, situated in a beautiful location high above Harrison Lake, the snow was nicely groomed, and the crowds were non-existent. Thanks to a few lighted runs, we skied for a few hours Saturday night and then all day Sunday.

Here’s the Mrs. at the top of the Sasquatch lift. If you look closely, you can see a little bit of Harrison Lake behind her head.

So, how did my back take it all, you might ask?

The Good News

I’m not in a lot of pain. There’s been some aching in the area, but no more than in my quads and hamstrings, which haven’t been used like that in months.

The Not So Good, But Not Necessarily Terrible News

I have had a return of some of the symptoms that I had been having prior to the cortisone shot, namely the tingling running down my left leg and into my left foot. It’s nowhere near as bad as it had been, however, and I was actually able to workout at the gym yesterday, and felt quite strong.

So, what do I do now, you might ask?

Do I take the return of the sciatica symptoms as a sign that it’s too soon to be skiing, keep with my core-strengthening regimen, and maybe squeeze in one last trip at the very end of the season?

Or, do I succumb once again to the call of the slopes?

In an effort to answer those questions, I’ll simply respond with another question:

How the HELL could anyone NOT go skiing when they read something like this?

11 thoughts on “Adventures in Skiing with a Herniated Disc

    1. While my chiropractor, doctor, neurosurgeon, and physical therapist would mostly likely disagree with you, mr. needl, I very much appreciate the encouragement. 🙂

  1. Hi, stumbled into your spondylolisthesis x-ray today, and got a bit curious; do you have pain or trouble with this?

    I have a quite similar picture of my back, and I’m now scheduled for surgery – finally! Maybe I’ll be able to do some skiing again afterwards 🙂

    All the best from little Norway!

    PS – if you drop by my blog, hopefully google translate will make it slightly readable, I’m afraid it is all Norwegian

    1. Hello, Norway! Such a treat to know folks are finding my blog from so far away.

      As for my back, yes, I’m still having trouble with it. If I keep up with my exercises to strengthen my abdomen and back muscles, I’m relatively free of discomfort and can do things like ski without issues.

      However, it’s always a struggle for me to stick with the exercises. They are so incredibly boring! (I’d be curious as to how your surgery goes, since I know some other people, including spaceneedl, who posted the comment above yours, who great success with it, having fixed the problem rather than trying to strengthen muscles around the problem.)

      With ski season approaching, I am feeling the motivation to firm up those muscles so that I can go play in the snow as much as possible, so hopefully I’ll be ready!

  2. See what you mean by struggles to keep up with exercises, I’ve tried those too. I guess it is possible to maintain a certain muscle strength for a while, but I’m not getting younger (are you?) and have serious doubts that my muscles alone will keep me standing when I’m approaching “old lady” for real. I’ll let you know how things are after surgery. I do have great expectations 🙂

  3. Your last post was in October, but I am curious how you are doing with your back and your skiing. I found this blog as I am getting ready for 2 weeks skiing in Breckenridge, CO. I was diagnosed with a herniated disc this past summer – same area, same symptons as you have. My orthopod brother said surgery; my radiologist bro said “don’t do it!”. So I have had the epidural – which worked well until I started doing real life stuff again! Pain level before epidural- 10; pain level now-4.
    Can you tell me what exercises you are doing? I was given some very minimal stuff – tightening core “corset”; a yoga “cobra poise” half way up; and some leg stretches (heel over opposite knee). Not much to build up muscles needed for skiing. What have you done to get ready for skiing – I am nervous, but really really want to ski! Thanks!

    1. Hi Molly, sorry about your back. You certainly have my empathy.

      Funny timing, too, since I’ll be out in Colorado at the beginning of March and was looking into skiing at Breckenridge too.

      Anyway, about my back, I’ve certainly been struggling with the two different opinions on surgery. I certainly don’t like the idea of how invasive surgery is, but I’ve heard enough stories that, with new techniques, it’s totally possible to have the herniated disc fixed, rather than relying on maintaining a strict, consistent regimen of core strengthening in order to manage pain.

      After my cortisone shot I got enough relief from the pain to be able to do more rigorous core strengthening and eventually was free of pain and sciatica symptoms. The exercises sound similar to what you were doing, with the addition of a variety of exercises using the pulley weight system in the gym, but with only the lowest amount of weight.

      However, as it goes with me, it’s difficult to keep a routine going, and when I noticed I could go skiing, hiking, cycling, and could lift things without pain, I wanted to spend my time doing those things rather than the core strengthening, and slowly but surely the pain and sciatica returned.

      I’ve just started doing pilates, which is almost entirely focused on core strengthening, but it’s too soon to tell how well this will help. I’ve had the thought that I could work all of the same muscles in the gym without having to pay the extra money for the pilates classes, but I’ve paid for one 14-week series, so I’ll see where I’m at at the end of the series.

      As it is, I’m not sure how skiing will go given my current condition. I haven’t gone yet this season, though the conditions haven’t been great here in the Pacific Northwest. Colorado is a different story altogether, so I hope I’ll be ok when I’m there.

      My gut tells me that I’ll end up getting the surgery sooner or later, and a part of me feels like it would be better sooner than later, as it’s harder to recover the older you get.

      I wish you relief and recovery and feel free to keep me posted!

      1. Good to hear back how active sports and a back injury are co-existing for you!
        Also the validation on core training is reassuring. Experts have told me that pilates would be a good step to take. I have the same problem as you- I start feeling great, then over exercise and start feeling the sciatica and lower back ache, then have to take it easy, which is depressing!
        One differentiating point of data you mentioned – surgery will not fix or repair the disc issue, only relieve the pain. I was told this by an excellent Seattle neurosurgeon (third opinion after getting the free differing opinions of my medical brothers). He said that although many people assume that surgery is a repair, what it is actually is removal of the dessicated disc material impinging on the nerve bundle involved (which is what is causing the pain, called L5-S1 radiculopathy, but what we lay people call sciatica). He says you have just as much chance of re-injury of a surgical intervention, although the pain is removed almost immediately. He said 80% of people recover on their own without surgery, but it may take up to a year for the disc pulp to dessicate to the point of not impinging on the nerve. So the key is if you can manage the pain for the duration of this time and not squish more pulp material out in the meantime! This is not to diminish the fact that surgery almost eliminates the pain in the majority of people immediately, but they have to be willing to assume the risks inherent with surgery as well as being careful of re-injury the rest of their lives. Bummer-no easy answer.
        In any event, enjoy Colorado- they are finally getting excellent snow. I am packing downhill and x-country skiis, and snowshoes. Staying 2 weeks. I love Breck!!!

  4. I also have an L5 herniation. I know your pain. I have been an invalid for the past two months, and I missed opening day at Whistler last week. After reading your article, I have decided that I’m going skiing.

    1. Well, you certainly have my empathy, but I’m not sure how good of an idea it is to ski if you’ve been an invalid for the past two months. As you can read above, I was pretty much pain-free, after months of rest, a cortisone injection, and physical therapy, before I got back on the slopes, and I can’t imagine skiing if I hadn’t been recovering.

      The last time I skied before my disc became super bad, the sciatica was causing weakness in my left leg, and on what was to be the last run of the day, I could barely hold an edge, which was dangerous. Halfway down I wondered if I would even make it to the lodge.

      So, I understand the desire to not miss out, but I you could be taking a big risk.

      I’ve been working my core a lot lately and trying to get things strong enough so that skiing is not a risk, hoping to make my first trip to Mt. Baker soon!

  5. I am so sorry to read of your back troubles. I know a guy up in Alaska who fell while skiing and damaged one of his disks. He ended up having surgery and is as active as ever. I do hope you can continue to enjoy yourself without taking too great a risk of worsening your condition. I have never heard of Harrison Lake–it looks beautiful!

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