Michael, 30 “No Way to Spend Your 20’s”

Share this video
ContributorMichael, 29Read Full Bio


Michael, 30, started having back pain at age 19, but he has never really figured out why he had back pain. He had an ankle injury that never healed properly and that along with playing golf every day wore out his lower back. Mike didn’t know he needed to stretch and weight train to help protect his back from the repetitive movements of golf. Around 22 he began to suffer severe pain down his legs, and it got to a point where he needed a walker. When he finally met with surgeons he was frustrated because he wanted a surgical solution right away. He had an artificial disc implanted from L4 to L5 and L5 to S1 fused.

  • The Journey
  • The Stories
ContributorDr. Robert G. Watkins IV, MD, Orthopedic SurgeonRead Full Bio


Robert Watkins IV, M.D., is co-director of Marina Spine Center and Chairman of the Surgery Department at Marina Del Rey Hospital. Dr. Watkins is a board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon, specializing in minimally invasive spine surgery, computer-assisted surgery, spinal-deformity treatment, and disc replacement. Dr. Watkins earned his medical degree at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and completed his residency in orthopedic surgery at the L.A. County/USC General Hospital. He then worked as a traveling fellow in Europe, specializing in artificial-disc replacement and scoliosis surgery. Over the past decade, he has lectured on spine issues to doctors, patient groups, athletic trainers, and physical therapists; led research teams that have published studies; and taught surgeons on specialized techniques. He is the spine consultant to many Los Angeles sports teams, and has treated professional, college, and high school athletes from all over the country.

  • Video Description

  • Video Transcript

Michael, 30, started having back pain at age 19, but he has never really figured out why he had back pain. He had an ankle injury that never healed properly and that along with playing golf every day wore out his lower back. Mike didn’t know he needed to stretch and weight train to help protect his back from the repetitive movements of golf. Around 22 he began to suffer severe pain down his legs, and it got to a point where he needed a walker. When he finally met with surgeons he was frustrated because he wanted a surgical solution right away. He had an artificial disc implanted from L4 to L5 and L5 to S1 fused.

My name is Mike. I'm 29-years old. I'll be 30 in a couple months. I work for a commercial real estate debt fund, which isn't as fancy as it sounds. From a lifestyle standpoint, I lead a pretty active lifestyle. I go to the gym probably three to five times a week, I go to yoga and meditate and I try to play golf at least twice of week. So, I feel healthy, I feel active, not restrictions, pretty much can do whatever I want whenever I want physically speaking and I feel good.

I started having back pain when I was about 19-years old and I've never had a doctor actually explain it to me to a point where it made actual sense, but the best that I can piece together is that I broke my left ankle twice and it never healed properly. And, to this day, it still hasn't quite healed properly. I literally played golf every single day growing up, so, the best guess I ever received was that it was a chain reaction starting with the ankle going all the way up to the lower back and then playing golf for years and years and years and not doing everything you need to do to take care of your body from a stretching standpoint because, obviously, when you're young, you don't think you need to stretch, you don't think you need to do yoga, you don't think you need to weight train. So, I had issues with my L4 to L5 discs and my L5 to S1.

When I was 19, I started physical therapy and would get in-intermediate relief and then continued setbacks by going out and probably doing things that I wasn't equipped to do, whether it be continuing to play golf, or I started lifting weights around then and there was a car accident at one point in time which kind of set my back off in-into motion. And, things just kind of progressed and deteriorated from there up to the point where I was about 22, where I really started to suffer from a pain standpoint. I had shooting nerve pain down both legs. My motor functions were being severely inhibited. So, I got to the point where I couldn't really walk towards the end. I had a walker and was pretty immobile, and the pain down the legs, was unbearable at that point and time. And, I couldn't work, I couldn't finish school because I was stuck at home with my mom because I couldn't drive myself.

I was sleeping downstairs before the surgery. I couldn't even go upstairs in the house. My life pretty much consisted of-of really doing nothing and gettin' dragged to physical therapy two or three times a week by my mom. It was so bad to the point where I-I couldn't stretch. I would just go watch t.v. and eat and then go to physical therapy, which at that point in time we were going in a warm pool. It was so embarrassing. [LAUGH] They would have to have to lift me up and like swing me over and drop me into this pool where I would-it was really the only time I could actually move. So, that was at the very end, like I I'd pretty much lost all function towards the very end.

When you're going through a trauma such as this, you find out who your true friends are outside of your family. Like my friends who would actually take the time to come over and visit me because I couldn't go anywhere. I was stuck at home all the time. Just to get dressed and-and to go out to dinner was a nightmare in and of itself. And, I found a lot of solace in watching "Scrubs" [LAUGH] from start to finish. It was me, my mom and the dog and, you know, my-my sister was gone, she was in New York, my brother was off at school and it was just pretty much the three of us and a couple friends who would stop by on a routine basis. So, it was depressing, yeah.

My ah-ha moment was probably being lifted into the pool for physical therapy on like a Tuesday. Tuesday morning at like 10 a.m. You know, I was 22, 23-years old and living at home because I physically couldn't take care of myself and getting driven to physical therapy and being lifted into a pool. And, that's when I kinda knew that everything we had tried that was non-surgical up to that point probably wasn't gonna work.

So, the first meeting with the surgeons, I went in a little pissed off because I was tired, I was done. My life was passing me by, if you will, you know. I was constantly comparing myself to my peers, who were out, active, working, living on their own, accomplishing things. So, I was ready for them to say we're gonna operate on you, we'll fix you, you'll be fine, and that's not what I heard. So, I was very disappointed at that. Luckily, my mom kinda talked some sense to me and then we-we went through that whole process of four or five months of them checking all the non-surgical boxes to make sure that every option had been exhausted because, as you know, surgery is last stop last resort.

It was a difficult process for me. I don't think I had the emotional skills to kinda deal with the situation and also being isolated and away from everyone and more or less depressed. I was fed up. I had had enough and I just-I didn't want to be in pain and I wanted to be able to walk and go work and finish school and do everything that my friends were doing.

Gettin' poked and prodded and getting' blood drawn-I had to go deposit semen at a sperm bank because they didn't know what the potential side effects were after the surgery. Like this is all very humiliating and tiring and taxing, not only on myself, but on my mom. You know, she pretty much had to drop everything she was doing to take care of me. I was just ready. I was ready.

I had an artificial disc put in from L4 to L5 and then they fused L5 to S1. So, as you know, L5 to S1 doesn't really move as is. They talked about the idea of fusing both discs-the space between both discs, but given my age and my youth and everything that I wanted to do after surgery, I opted for the artificial disc which also runs a pretty big risk because you may have to get it replaced down the road, but the trade was worth it for me.

The procedure went fine. I had a little fever afterward, but the first thing I remember when I woke up was that the pain-the shooting pain that I had had in my legs for a couple years was gone. My stomach, where they cut me, that was a whole different issue. I have a lot of respect for women and C-Sections [LAUGH] after that. But, the pain in my legs was gone, which was like the first sign of relief that I felt after surgery. And then, couple hours after surgery, they had me stand up out of bed, which I thought that was absolutely insane, but I was able to do it. I was probably in the hospital for two-two nights-two and a half days, roughly. And, after that point in time, my mom had had enough of me so she had arranged for me to go to a post-op center with 24/7 nurse care to kinda take care of me for the two weeks after surgery.

I don't really remember much, to be honest with you, I mean, the meds that they had me on were pretty heavy. At that point in time, the days kinda consisted of just kinda sleeping, being able to sleep through the night, getting up, taking a shower, which was difficult at first, but got easier. They would get us up and walk us up and down the halls. I had a walker for the first two weeks or so and then after that, started going to physical therapy two weeks after surgery.

I was on my back on the training bed the whole time and it was just a lot of stretching and moving of the legs and kinda realigning-getting the shoulders back opened up and getting the spine back in order up top because I had been hunched over for so long. It was a pretty slow process for about two weeks and then after a month, then they kinda had me up and doing some agility exercises and some strengthening exercises. And, three months after surgery is when I kinda felt I turned the corner, but I still didn't trust my back yet. So, I continued to do physical therapy. I did physical therapy all the way up through six months after surgery and then six months was about the time where I felt I could trust my back.

I also had five months of physical therapy before surgery. It wasn't giving me the relief that I was looking for, but my body had its strength, like the muscles were active, things were movin', so I think that definitely helped me on the backend.

I mean, it was just-everything was slow. It's like I really had to develop my patience. Tasks that I had easily done before I had gotten to the point where I was immobile-just everything was slower. The biggest thing was I-I just didn't trust anything, right? I was too scared to apply too much pressure on any part of my body or to lift or to move or to walk or try to get upstairs quickly or downstairs quickly. Without expectations, you can't be disappointed, right? And-and that's not necessarily something I knew at the time.

Looking back, these are the lessons that I've developed. You know, you just have to accept the situation that you're in. You have to have faith that everything's gonna work out. You have to find surgeons or doctors that you trust. And you have to do everything that they tell you to do because I feel like a lot of people also will go through surgery and do a couple weeks of physical therapy and then stop going and that's not what they tell you to do. You have to take it slow. It's just an overall acceptance of your condition and-and that things that you used to do may not be available to you in the future, which is tough. It's pretty demoralizing and, at my age, it was-it was not something that I was willing to accept at that point in time.

I'm very grateful and lucky and fortunate that I had a mother who could take care of me and didn't necessarily have other responsibilities that got in the way of taking care of me, but that's-that's just sad. Like, you know, you're not supposed to be 22-years old being taken care of by your mom, like being helped upstairs, having-having her help put my socks on, put my pants on and stuff like that. If she had to work or if she wasn't in the equation, I don't know how I would have done it. With the severity of the issue that I was dealing with and my lack of mobility, I definitely needed someone around to help me. I couldn't drive. I couldn't feel my left foot towards the end because of the-the nerve damage that I had. It was numb.

The guys that I worked with, the one thing they were good communicators. They really took something that's very complex and-and kept it very simple for, uh, for a guy like me to understand. I didn't really have a tough time wrapping my head around a lot of what they said. Obviously, the terminology and some of the medical, um, words that they were using were beyond my grasp. Essentially, I had to discs that were bulging and-and my nerves were being affected and the discs were disintegrating, so I was, you know, I could figure that out. The manner in which they described the surgery was also pretty easy for me to wrap my head around. The fusion scared me. The double fusion scared me, but fusing just S5 to L1 was easier for me to wrap my head around because that's essentially your tailbone and there's not that much flexibility down there.

They did explain and walk through the risks very thoroughly with respect to the artificial disc. I, obviously, have a huge fear of having to be operated on again and-and pain coming back, but I choose to not succumb to that. I mean-I mean, I have no pain right now.

Reflecting on everything I've been through leading up to surgery and post-surgery. Okay, so three months before I was doom and gloom and there's no way out of this, at this point in time, we had discussed surgery, but it wasn't on the table at that particular point in time because my surgeons were still puttin' me through all the tests. So, I was-in my mind, I was screwed, you know, I'm never gonna have a normal life and never gonna get married and never gonna have kids, like how am I gonna pick my kids up? I'm-I'm never gonna be able to play golf again. I'm never gonna do this, that and the other. When they finally agreed to do the surgery, it was hope. I was-I was given some hope, you know. I still didn't know what was gonna happen or what the outcome was gonna be. It's a very, very large risk to take and you're kinda rollin' the dice. There was a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel and post-surgery when I woke up and I didn't feel the burning sensation down my legs was when I knew that I could get back to being okay. I don't even think about my back these days. I don't. Now, I wake up pain free.

I do everything I'm supposed to do. You know, I stretch, I go to the gym, I'm moving around, I'm active. I mean, the only time I have pain these days is when I've been standing for anything over an hour, but I think that's common amongst most people. Like going to a wedding and standing and dancing all night, that's when it starts to hurt.

When I follow the doctor's orders and I did everything I was supposed to do, that's when I got the best results. You know, anytime I thought I knew what I was doing or I knew how to run the program the best way possible, I didn't get the maximum results. I didn't get the best outcome for myself. So, it's part of the acceptance and surrendering of your situation involves knowing that you don't know what's going on and you're not the specialist and you're not a spinal surgeon and you're not a neurosurgeon. So, you have some very smart people in the room, some very educated people in the room with a lot of tangible experience and they've treated hundreds, if not thousands, of patients. So, you just need to shut up and listen to the doctors and do what they tell you to do.

Now, I wake up in a foam roll and I stretch and I've worked with trainers who also have secondary educations with respect to actual, um, back issues, and so we've-we've kinda cultivated a program, if you will, over the last couple years. It's all directly related to doing what I've been told to do. It's the issue I wanna stress the most. Like I-I wake up, I foam roll and I stretch and that's probably like a little 20-minute routine that I do every morning and I-and it sticks with me throughout the day and I continue to stretch throughout the day and I stretch before I play golf, I stretch after I play golf. I've got a very firm, firm, firm bed that I sleep on. It's pretty much like sleeping on concrete. If I'm on a long flight, I get up and walk around and I try not to sit all day. I have no restrictions. It's pretty awesome.

I ran the L.A. Marathon in 2012 in under four hours, two and half, three years after surgery. I can play golf. I lift weights. I go to yoga. I go surfing. Life's good.

More Related Videos


HIPAA disclaimer:

Remember that your posts are public. Please do not include information in the text of your comment that personally identifies you, such as your your location, financial information, or other private information.

Other disclaimers:

PatientTalk reserves the right to delete comments that are vulgar, offensive or abusive, or which incite violence or contain fraudulent info, spam, porn, personal attacks or graphic images. Individual comments and responses do not necessarily reflect the views of PatientTalk.