My Spinal Fusion: A Pilates Teacher's Story

Pilates for Rehab?

“I just had my second spinal fusion surgery!” is not something you expect your Pilates instructor to proclaim excitedly.

I do and I did.

I had my first fusion when I was 19 years old. I was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis when I was 15. Spondies, as they are affectionately called, are a group of spinal defects, some congenital and some caused by injury, that involve the shifting of the entire spinal column.

My "spondy" was congenital and degenerative. At the time of my first fusion, my spine was at a 50% slip with no cartilage left in between the very last vertebra of my lumbar (low back) spine (L5) and the first bone of my pelvis (S1). That meant that my spinal column had shifted so far forward that only half of L5 was sitting on top of S1.

I had been a runner at the time my spondy was diagnosed and was specifically instructed to stop running and stop carrying a heavy backpack. I decided that I knew better than my surgeon, continued running and continued carrying a backpack.

Ah, the ignorance, stubbornness, and ego of a 15-year-old…

I listened a little, did physical therapy religiously, and even wore a brace for a while but that pesky pounding of my feet on pavement just wasn’t doing anything good for my spine. Fast forward three years and I was out for a run with my college’s cross country team in the corn fields of Ohio when I felt a crunch.

Those two bones of my spine had been grinding together for years but this one was different. I walked my way back to campus, called my mom, and surgery was scheduled for the end of the summer.

Having your spine fused means that bolts and rods are implanted into the bone to realign the spinal column as best as can be done.

In my case, I got four bolts, two rods, two small cages in between the two bones, and a bone graft so that the two vertebrae bolted together would heal together as one.

I remember very little about the recovery period from my first surgery but what stuck is unpleasant.

Standing up for the first time after I woke up was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Imagine your spine as an accordion that has a plumb weight at the bottom that yanks all the folds straight down to the ground. That’s my most vivid memory of the feeling during that period.

In the year before that first surgery was scheduled, I stopped running. By the summer of my surgery, I was noticeably weak. Post-surgery, I used a walker. It took me a couple of weeks to be able to climb up or down stairs. I sat on a chair in the shower and had a raised toilet seat. A physical therapist came to my house for the first couple of weeks to work with me too. My surgery was August 28th and it took me about a month to be able to slowly walk around the block almost pain-free.

I was told at the time that it was likely, if not definite that I would have another fusion in about 10 years. This wasn't an indication that the fusion would fail but that the rest of my spine was probably going to continue to shift forward.

This is where Pilates comes in. I was no longer running and I had been largely idle for a year. A few people suggested Pilates but I shooed them off with a giggle because I didn’t consider Pilates a sport. I finally got sick of people telling me to try it so just to shut them up, I tried it. Like many new to Pilates, fellow instructors included, I started with Mari Winsor’s DVD’s. It was hard! I sweat! I actually felt like I worked out. It took the same type of mental and physical discipline and focus that running demanded of me. I was hooked.

That was in 2000. I did Pilates, and pretty much only Pilates for the next 16 years.

I hadn’t seen my surgeon since 2002 until a few years ago when I decided that I wanted him to know how well I was doing and thank him for changing my life, for fixing me, and especially for helping me find Pilates. So in 2012 I went to see my spinal surgeon.

His reaction to my X-rays was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. When he said my fusion and spine were perfect, my heart actually fluttered. Pilates had held me together, in spite of myself, for 13 years.

I felt great until this past year. I started to feel all the old familiar crunches and pain again and knew that I was headed towards my second spinal fusion. I did everything I could in my own workouts to maintain strength, and protect and preserve my spine.

As time went on, my pain level increased and my mobility decreased. Teaching was getting increasingly challenging and I found it difficult to sit, stand, or lay down for any length of time.

By the summer of 2015, no workout was going to make a difference anymore. Everything hurt all the time. My pain was interfering with my life to the degree that I knew it was time to talk to my surgeon and figure out a plan of action.

I had pretty much stopped working out mid-summer in 2015 and wasn’t scheduled for surgery until January 4th, 2016. I was worried that the same effect having to stop running a year before my first surgery was going to happen again and being 16 years older, I had no idea what to expect of my post-op body this time around.

By the time my surgery date came around I was actually excited for it.

I woke up that night from anesthesia and I was prepared for that awful weighted accordion feeling again but when I stood up, I felt sturdy. I felt supported.

I went home after a week and by the middle of my second week, I was able to walk barely using my walker. I was only puttering around my apartment but still, I was pleased. I wasn’t allowed to bend, lift, twist, or carry anything yet so any type of physical activity was an accomplishment.

I didn’t feel like I needed to use it anymore but knowing myself and my less than consistent cooperation with doctor’s orders, I kept carrying that walker around, holding it in front of me but not really bearing any weight on it. I took it with me to my two-week follow-up appointment thinking that I would be praised for actually doing what the doctor had said. I was surprised when he told me that if I felt that I didn’t need the walker then I could have stopped using it.

He was shocked by my progress at that two-week checkup. I was up and moving, and in very little, if any pain. You don’t really think about what muscles you use to help you sit and stand or the ones that hold your spine together but those are the ones that Pilates focuses on. I could sit and stand, walk around, lunge and squat to pick things up from floor, and simply maneuver my body because of Pilates.

Pilates is why I could get in and out of bed just a few hours after spinal fusion surgery. It’s why I could walk unassisted two weeks after surgery. It’s why the muscles of my truck, hips, and thighs were strong enough to help me sit, stand, and function at about 80% a month after surgery. It’s why two months after having surgery I was living on my own again, totally unassisted, and given the OK to start working out again. At my six-week check-up, the time when most patients are sent to 6-8 weeks of physical therapy, my surgeon told me that I didn’t need to do PT this time around! I needed to cautiously rebuild my strength but that could be done with properly supervised Pilates lessons and that’s exactly what I did.

If somebody were to have watched my first session back at my studio after my surgery, I’m sure it didn’t look like much work but I was shaking and sweating, and I had some very sore muscles for a few days after. It was the best feeling ever.

My workouts since that first week in March still don’t look like much but that’s the beauty of Pilates. I don’t have to do super fancy exercises to get a good workout. I can get more out of a short list of basic exercises done well than I would get from any of the fancy ones at this point in my healing.

I give all credit to Pilates for how smooth my recovery has been and for keeping my spine together for 16 years.

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