Allison Mumme, a 32-year-old elementary school teacher who is on the move from dawn to dusk, lives for exercise-induced adrenaline rushes and never misses a 4 a.m. workout — that is, until minor back pain over the summer turned serious and almost resulted in permanent paralysis.
The past two years have been busy for Allison. She started participating in athletic activities and found a way to relieve stress,gain friends and lose an incredible 280 pounds. The hours spent running, kayaking, boxing, hitting the softball and spiking the volleyball paid off big time but left her with excess folds of skin. Due to her weight loss, she underwent two cosmetic surgeries and was moving again in no time. Then, unexpectedly, another obstacle blocked her path.
“At first, the back pain was minimal and didn’t interfere with my daily activities, but then things turned serious,” Allison says. “My primary care doctor ordered imaging tests and an MRI scan to confirm his suspicions that I was dealing with a herniated — or ruptured — disc in my lower back that was causing pain in my back and numbness along my entire right leg, from my hip down to my toes.”
Healthy discs with proper cushioning along the spine allow you to move your back with ease. When one of these discs ruptures, it places pressure on the spinal nerves. This pain can engulf the lower back, traveling down into the lower body, causing weakness and bladder or bowel dysfunction.
Closing the Chapter on Chronic Pain
One in four American adults suffers from backaches for at least one day over the course of a three-month period, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. But for Allison, this pain, lasting longer than three months, wasn’t going away. Thankfully, her doctor and her grandmother both recommended a neurosurgeon with decades of experience performing spinal surgery.
“When I met Allison, she was a charming young woman who was in a tremendous amount of pain and had significant weakness and neurologic function. You could see the pain in her eyes, and she could barely put weight on her right leg,” says Mathew T. Alexander, M.D., neurosurgeon, chair of surgery and neurosurgery, CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi—Shoreline, who also practices medicine at South Texas Brain & Spine Center. “Her MRI showed a very large right L5-S1 disc herniation with a large free fragment causing severe compression of the right L5 and S1 nerve roots.”
Allison underwent microdiskectomy surgery to remove her ruptured disc six days after her initial clinic visit with Dr. Alexander. The short timeline was necessary to prevent nerve damage from completely destroying all muscle function in her right leg. Using a small incision with tubular retractors, Dr. Alexander was able to decompress the nerve. He removed the free fragment and disc herniation. This was no small feat because of the large size of the disc and the amount of compression of the surrounding nerves.
Dr. Alexander performed outpatient surgery on Allison on Friday, October 14, and she left that same day. She walked out of the hospital and returned to work the next Tuesday. “When I woke up from surgery, sensation immediately returned to my right leg. The numbness was gone,” Allison says. “After five or six weeks, feeling should be completely restored to my right foot and I will gradually be able to lift objects heavier than five pounds, which is important, considering I signed up to run a half marathon in April. I plan to run it — that’s my motivation right now and the next goal in front of me.”
Dr. Alexander supports Allison’s decision to get back to her daily exercise routine and thinks she will be ready in April to cross that next finish line. “My only major concern was Allison doing too much too soon so she can allow her back to heal and undergo some physical therapy,” Dr. Alexander says.
Herniated discs cause back pain for many people, and a majority of them find relief in as little as four weeks from nonsurgical solutions, including epidural steroid injections, physical therapy exercises and periods of rest and modified activity. Allison’s case was more advanced, due in part to the size of her herniated disc and the amount of pressure it was placing on her spinal nerves. “Herniated discs usually happen to people in their 30s and 40s, even healthy and active people like Allison,” Dr. Alexander says. “If you are experiencing lower back pain and especially any weakness or numbness that won’t go away on its own, be proactive and schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. He or she may be able to help you find relief, and if needed, see a neurosurgeon.”