A Wrestler's Experience with Herniated Disc Surgery

UWW PHotographer

UWW PHotographer

By Victoria Francis-Weiss

Just a month after becoming the 2016 Olympic Trials Runner-up, I was back home and injured. I had a herniated disc in my low back and the symptoms were so intense, it hurt to sit or carry my laundry. It was a scary time not knowing what recovery from this injury would entail, or if it was possible. I was too eager to return to training and thus worsened my situation and lengthened my recovery time. Fortunately I was able to recover from this injury with the help of my family and medical staff, and have been able to continue my wrestling career. This is how I overcame the biggest injury of my career, and how you can hopefully avoid the the same fate.

The Injury

College graduation weekend was an exciting time home for my husband and I. He was home on leave and proposed to me. We spent a lot of time visiting family, and attended my graduation from Lindenwood University. After a long weekend of driving and sitting, I was experiencing some light sciatic pain (pain starting in my low back and radiating down my leg). I tried to ignore it, thinking it was caused by tight muscles. I had a bulged disc less than a year ago that had given me sciatic pain, but this was not as intense. On Monday I was continuing my training at the the gym and did a lower body lift, all seemed well. But later that day sitting at home, the pain became intense and it was clear to me I had injured a disc again.

The Diagnosis

Within a couple days I went to my doctor, and after hearing my symptoms, they agreed that I had a bulging disc again. A vertebral disc lies in between two vertebrae in the spine, and holds the vertebrae together. This allows for slight mobility and absorbs shock. A disc is made up of a soft but sturdy outer portion that contains a gel-like inner core. A bulging disc means the disc is protruding from its normal position. Sometimes, this can happen without any symptoms. Conversely, in my case, the disc bulging into nearby nerves caused symptoms such as pain, weakness, tingling and numbness in one or both legs.

Managing the injury was very hard on me emotionally. It was already my second disc injury within one year, and I was aware degenerative disc disease ran in my family. Would I be able to continue wrestling? Would I be plagued with disc injury after disc injury? I had just graduated college and became engaged. I was at a point in my life where I was content with my wrestling career and could possibly retire. Thoughts about moving on with my life, starting a career, or starting a family often danced in my head. But I still felt I had to leave wrestling on my own terms, not because an injury knocked me down. After long mental battles within myself, I decided to continue on with the intent to return to the mat and competition full force.

My doctor immediately referred me to physical therapy. We began with light stretching and soft tissue work to allow the disc to heal. We set off with the goal of being ready for my summer tour, which was only a few months away.

Rushing Recovery

My symptoms had become far less intense after about a month of physical therapy, and I thought I was healed. Physical therapy was going well back home, so I pushed myself to travel to National Team camps that summer. Unfortunately as soon as I hopped on the plane, I knew that was far from the truth. After a couple hours of sitting on the plane, the sciatic pain returned full force. I arrived at camp knowing I couldn’t wrestle. Instead of wrestling, I focused my time on physical therapy while at the Olympic Training Center.

Life as a National Team member requires travel continuous travel back and forth for camps and training. Between the mandatory travel and visiting my fiance on the east coast, I did not have a consistent physical therapy schedule. The traveling and sitting was putting further strain on my disc and new symptoms were arising: I had tingling and numbness in my right foot and weakness in my right leg. My doctor and I decided to do imaging on my spine. While we waited to hear the results, physical therapy now had a new goal of getting me healed, however slow that needed to be. This allowed the staff to identify any weakness, imbalance, or mobility issues head to toe. They found poor ankle mobility, weak glutes and core, tight hip flexors, and poor T-spine mobility. These imbalances were all possibly contributing to the stress on my low back. While simultaneously giving my low-back the chance to heal, we started to tackle the other issues with stretching, mobility exercises, and light strengthening exercises. Despite fully dedicating myself to recovery, I was still showing symptoms of a disc injury. Eventually, the imaging results came back and I made an appointment with the disc specialist.

Deciding on Surgery

The imaging showed damage worse than I had expected: a herniated disc. And it was a big one. A herniated disc is when the outer portion of the disc is broken and the core is starting to leak out. The specialist said surgery may be needed at this point, since it was not healing like we had hoped. Surgery (called a lumbar discectomy) would entail a surgeon removing the part of the core escaping the disc to help relieve pressure from my nerves, and allow space for the outer portion to heal. These outpatient surgeries have been fairly successful, even for athletes, so I decided to fix my body. While I waited for my surgery date to arrive, I still continued my therapy. Therapy during this time was still tackling my imbalances and weaknesses, and managing pain with stretching and traction (light pulling on my spine to relieve pressure on the disc).

Road to Recovery

It had been 5 months of bad attempts at therapy by the time I finally had the surgery.  The operation was successful, and I was back home the same night sleeping on the couch (I couldn’t go upstairs to my bedroom quite yet). The inflammation in the surgical site caused quite a bit of pain, numbness and weakness in my right leg for a couple days post-op. As the inflammation went down, I noticed I had no pain and the tingling and numbness was going away.

I was much more dedicated to recovery and therapy post-op. Recovery meant allowing the disc to heal, which takes approximately 6-8 weeks. From there, I needed to slowly build back to full training. The first two-weeks were nearly-zero activity, just short afternoon walks. The next 2 months entailed activity as long as it didn’t put pressure on the disc. This meant avoiding carrying too much weight, bending, twisting, or impact. I also continued my therapy to help with ankle and T-spine mobility, hip flexor tightness, weak glutes and core. After being off the mat for more than 7 months, I was able to start wrestling again.

Protecting Against Future Injury

Since my return to the mat, I have seen my greatest wrestling successes. 6 months post-op, I made my first Senior world team and later earned a few medals at international open competitions. I have not had any additional disc injuries, but occasionally feel tingling in my foot. I have taken great care to protect myself from another disc injury and hope you can include some of these precautions in your training to prevent injury.

There are small adjustments in your daily life you can make to help keep your spine happy and healthy. For instance, your posture is important. Sitting slouched or sitting for long periods of time is not healthy for your back or hips. I try to focus on sitting with a neutral lower back and taking time to get up and move after sitting for awhile. I have even bought myself a kneeling chair to help my posture. I am sitting in it now as I type this blog. Furthermore, if I have the option to stand rather than sit, I stand.

Another example is lifting in daily life. Even to lift the smallest item on the floor, I try to pick it up using my knees and keeping a flat back. If I have to carry things, such as a heavy backpack, I try to carry it on the middle of my back using both straps as. Carrying a backpack with one strap on one side of my body means stress is being put on my discs unevenly. I also try to minimize my time carrying a backpack. If I’m standing in one spot for a few minutes, I take the bag off my back and let my spine rest.

On the mat in order to protect my back, I limit my time in my stance without a partner. Being in a stance without a partner puts a lot of strain on my back, so I keep my stance in motion time short. To make up for the time I miss during stance in motion, I do other foot speed and reaction drills outside of my stance. Wrestling with another individual is less strain since some of my weight is supported by them. As a result, normal drilling and sparring usually doesn’t give my back issues.

Off the mat, I have placed certain limits on my strength and conditioning to help protect my back. I still lift lower body including squats and deadlifts, but I have taken a lot of time and effort to ensure I have good form and lift safely. Using heavy weights on a lift is not worth jeopardizing my health, so I have learned to check my ego at the door. I often video myself or ask a coach to check my form. if I see or feel bad form, I lower the weight and address the issues. To further protect my spine in the weight room, I keep bending and twisting core movements to a minimum. No crunches or Russian twists for this gal anymore. Instead, I try to stick to isometric core exercises, such as planks or single-arm dumbbell holds.

For conditioning, I have nearly eliminated running. I think some wrestlers would jump for joy at the thought of not having to run anymore, but I actually enjoyed long-distance running. I even trained for a half-marathon during college. Unfortunately, the impact of running was the biggest trigger for pain during my first disc injury. I also avoid row machines because the repetitive forward bending strains my back. So instead, I stick with the elliptical and bike. I use airdyne or spin bikes for interval training and the elliptical for long, steady-state conditioning workouts.

Mental Battles

All athletes experience injuries and the mental battles which accompany them. So many athletes feel alone during these experiences because many of us don’t make the injuries and the heartaches public. I was afraid to share my experience because it made me feel weak and vulnerable. Now that I am on the other side of this injury, I want to share this experience so other athletes don’t think they are alone.

This injury was no easy feat, both physically and mentally. For months, I endured pain from the daily tasks, like sitting for dinner or trying to carry my backpack. But the hardest part of this injury was the mental warfare within myself. This injury forced me to seriously question my dedication and passion for wrestling. When you can only manage 10 minutes of rehab a day, it gives you plenty of downtime to reflect.

Once I sorted it out in my head that I was willing to make a return, waiting for my body to be ready for that return was another mental challenge. All athletes hear the gong of upcoming competition and the gong was teasing me. I was spending all day lying in bed trying to heal and I could see on social media everyone else still wrestling. Team USA went to battle at the Olympics and I was only able to do a measly amount of physical therapy every day. I felt like I wasn’t doing my part. I had to remind myself that my daily training was small but important, and everyone else had their own. Without a healthy back, I was never going to be able to do my part. Learning to go my pace and take care of my needs was a daily battle, and one I still face today. After this injury, I now feel equipped with the discipline to focus on my training and my needs rather than looking at what everyone else is doing.

After 7 months off the mat, I went through so much pain, physically and emotionally. My wrestling career had to take a pause while my spine healed, but upon my return, I was a mentally stronger athlete and person.  Like myself, many athletes experience disc bulges and herniations, but there are measures that can be taken to prevent these injuries. Posture, weightlifting form, core and glute strength, and overall mobility are all areas athletes can work to improve on their own or with the help of their coaches. Taking time to address these areas can not only protect you from injury during your wrestling career, but are good practices to use throughout your life to safeguard your back as you age.

photo by Mindy Pastrovich 

photo by Mindy Pastrovich 

Victoria Francis-Weiss is a 2x national team member. She was a 2017 World Team Member at 75kg, and was runner up at the 2016 Olympic Trials. She is Junior World Bronze medalist, has 2 WCWA National titles, and 2 University National titles. She attended Lindenwood University and graduated with her degree in mathematics and computer science. She currently resides in Maryland with her husband and their dog.