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Dealing with Bulging Lumbar Disks

Q. "I just started playing tennis a few months ago at the age of 33. I absolutely love it! Recently I was diagnosed with bulging lumbar disks. I had the back and leg pain before I started playing, so it is not the tennis that caused this problem. My tennis instructor is adamant that I do not play right now, but my neuro doctor said to go ahead. I don't know what to do. I love the game so much, and I don't want to stop, but I also don't want to hurt myself more. Any suggestions?"

From Christine:

I would feel more comfortable following health advice from a doctor vs. a tennis instructor. That said, maybe your neurodoctor or primary care physician can advise on ways to treat and live with your disk problem so that you do not get worse. Physical therapy can help. Best of luck.

From Phil, Briarcliff Manor, NY:

I, too, have bulging lumbar disks. And we are not the only ones. At our "advanced" age, we all have them just because we walk erect. I can't remember the last time I heard your average brontosaurus complaining, "Ooh, my aching back." A slight bulge in the disks doesn't have to be the cause of lower back pain. Only if they push on a nerve does it cause any problem.

Mine were diagnosed on MRI 10 years ago when I threw my back out, and I also was told never to play again by my doctor. But since then, orthopedists and neurologists have learned that keeping mobile even through the pain, assuming nothing more serious is going on, is the thing to do.

I do yoga and tennis-oriented strength and flexibility training and compete successfully against "kids" 10-20 years my junior. So listen to your neuro doctor – do some serious physical therapy, and kick some b-tt.

From Dave:

I suggest you continue to play. Since you are only a beginner, play mini tennis. Stay at the service line. Work on your point of contact on the forehand side in an open stance, facing the net… there’s less pressure on your back. Use a two-handed backhand. And have fun!

From Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

I am no doctor, but I play with pain all the time. Maybe you are overweight – that hurts the back. I would ice and heat it often, get massages and do lots of stretching. The neuro doctor said play, so play, but stretch before and ice after. I played today. I’m lucky to be in Florida. I am in pain, but I will do these things to get by.

Physical therapy might help. It’s something I think I need, and hopefully it will get better. I hear back surgery isn't that dangerous like it used to be. So keep on playing, don't over-do it, and follow the tips I have given. Good luck!

From Anonymous, Salt Lake City, UT:

I am not a medical doctor, but I'd give heavy weight to an MD's advice.

Nevertheless, a few years ago, I had a serious spinal disk extrusion in the neck. Drugs and therapy weren't helping. In spite of a doctor's advice to not play tennis and lift weights, I was frustrated and began heavy exercise and tennis, even though I was in excruciating pain. I also used Ibuprofin but no heavy pain killers. My health was quickly restored.

It may be that exercise of the back muscles, using anti-inflammatories and avoiding heavy drugs are successful in many cases.

From Eric R., Santa Rosa, CA:

My piece of advice that is No. 1 "with a bullet" is to get a second opinion from an alternative medical source.

I know that, personally, I would get prolotherapy administered by the doctor who has the most experience in my area. Osteopaths are the doctors with the most education regarding this "NO side effects, NO surgery approach." It was used to permanently cure the former surgeon general of the USA. He has since formally encouraged this approach and written in his own words about it. Why not just "Google" the subject, and you will get a ton of free information. Osteopaths have a web site that lists credentialed prolo practitioners. They use no incisions; instead, they inject a non-toxic substance into specific back areas that activates a protective healing reaction from the body.

I am not an MD. Get a second opinion from one or a couple of osteopaths using this non-surgical option as an alternative to surgery. Do not give up an active lifestyle. Get it fixed.

From W. Red W., Jacksonville, AL:

Go ahead and play, Pamela! I, too, have three lumbar bulging disks. My orthopedic doc set me up with stretching exercises before and after playing tennis. He also prescribed 500 mg twice daily of anti-inflammatory medicine.

I am 74 years old, have been following this regimen for eight years and continue to play three to five times weekly. Only once was it necessary for me to be injected with an epidural to relieve lingering back and leg sciatic nerve pain. (When serving, I try to turn my shoulder so I don't bow my back so much during the toss.)

Good Luck! Enjoy your tennis!

From Scott H., Riverside, CA:

Find another tennis instructor. Paraphrasing the immortal words of Rod Laver, arguably one of the greatest tennis players of all time, we all have our aches and pains, but we just play through them. In your case, the neuro doctor has prescribed an authorized activity. He is better versed on the potential chances of injury or debilitation than the tennis pro.

From Coach Poppie, Palm Bay, FL:

Pamela, this may be simple or the worst thing you want to hear. Having soft tissue damage that interferes with your play is telling you something. STOP playing. When a doctor actually tells you “go ahead,” it can mean, “There is nothing I can do to help you in this condition -- go ahead, stop playing if you have pain.”

Tennis is a twisting motion sport with a lot of starting and stopping. Couple that with jumping and lateral movement things that at the young age of 33 you may not be accustomed. In addition, footwear is critical – you need excellent tennis shoes. Notice tennis shoes – not running, walking, cross trainers or sneakers. You need tennis shoes with box toes and solid heal cups. Tennis shoes are the foundation, your insulation from the playing surface.

Are you in shape to play tennis? You need to get into shape to play tennis. However, most folks think I’ll play tennis to get in shape. I’m not saying to join a gym, start jogging, etc.… I mean get into shape. Start by walking briskly, continuously for 20 minutes minimum every day. You will be amazed at what this simple task will do for your overall performance.

As for your instructor, he should be concerned. He sees this all the time and his due diligence is to be commended. Get him a note from your doctor and give him a release.

Bottom line from an old timer who also started at 33 and played to the point of lower back failure requiring surgery… listen to your body, and do what is says. Pain means stop. No pain means go!

That’s about it. Good luck.

From Jean B., Fort Wayne, IN:

Pamela, is your tennis instructor a doctor? I doubt it. If a neurosurgeon has said you can play, I would take that advice. Bulging disks are not incapacitating, and you are better off exercising to your best ability than not.

From Jane B., VA:

Amazingly, my own experience with bulging disks and learning to play tennis as an adult mirrors yours. Seventeen years later, I am still competing and enjoying every moment! PLEASE take my advice and follow the best self-therapy for lower back pain caused by disk movement, presented by Robin McKenzie in the book, “Treat Your Own Back.”

In most uncomplicated cases, lower back pain can be alleviated by simple gravitational techniques and exercises until the inflammation that causes pain has been reduced. Then you will learn the correct way to keep your back under control. Much of the therapy relies on good posture, especially after activity when muscles are loose and warm (like after you've played and your back feels fine).

The book is less than 80 pages and is full of photos and diagrams to help you understand everything. I have shared this little gem with many people, and it has never failed to be a help.

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