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  • Herniated disc and self healing

    On December 12th 2012 at around 8PM I lifted up my dinghy as I've done 100 times before, only this time things did not go to plan. I felt and herd a snap in the top of my pelvis which was followed instantaneously by the feeling of someone stabbing me in in the lower back. Pain shot up my left side and my leg went numb. I crawled into the dinghy and made my way home, howling with pain as I crossed the bay.

    I limped around for the next few weeks having days of "ah, it's getting better" and days when it was not. Being the "independent guy" that I was I did not seek help.

    I had a couple of relapses, the second of which was as painful as the original wound. I found myself on the floor of my boat crying and lost. See, I've never really been in a situation like this before where I was unable to help myself. I was effectively out of action and without a plan.

    Very thankfully my office co-workers and fiancé came to my assistance. One of my team helped by calling a surgeon in St Vincent and making an appointment. One of my team took me across on the ferry where I met my fiancee and took a taxi to the surgery.

    Frankly, I was ready for him to explain that I was about to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. To my surprise he explained that I had a herniated disk in my lower lumber region of my spine and that, if i did exactly as he explained, I will be well in 3 months and without surgery.

    He was right. I am "fixed" and I have written my experience down in the hope that it can assist you. Firstly, I am not a doctor nor do I have any medical experience. You HAVE TO get to a doctor. You need x-rays and to find a doctor that knows this type of injury. Read this up front and ask loads of questions. The more you understand about your injury the more chance you have of conquering it. Knowledge is power.

    I have read frightening stories on the web of surgery and limited success rates. I have also read increasingly that people are finding ways to treat back problems without surgery. I am living proof that there is hope and knowledge out there.

    So, forgive me if I go from the basics. This was all news to me...

    Your nerves run down your spine and exit at specific points. Your spine is made up of a bunch of disks which are best thought of as a pile of donuts stacked on top of each other. Some donuts have bites out of them for the nerves to exit.

    Each doughnut has two shells; a soft inner and a hard outer shell. Inside is mayonnaise. The idea is to keep the mayonnaise inside the doughnut. If it leaks in between the shells then you have herniated your doughnut. If it seeps out of both shells your have ruptured your doughnut. I have no knowledge of the second injury as mine was a herniated doughnut.

    Loads of people herniate their doughnuts without knowing it. If you are unlucky (as I was) you badly herniate one of the doughnuts that have your nerves exiting. In this case the outer shell pushes against your nerves from the mayonnaise stuck between your outer and inner doughnut shell. If this is the case, you will know it because the pain is beyond words.

    If you have a dead leg then look around for pictures of nerves. For me the pain was in the back of my thy and in the base of my foot/ outer side of my foot. Pictures of the nerve paths will show you that the nerves feeding these areas are the S1 and L5 nerves. It was these nerves that I had damaged.

    Pictures of nerves at : http://www.backpain-guide.com/Chapter_Fig_folders/Ch07_Symptoms_Folder/Sciatica.html

    Now just to add to this mess. Your donuts are compressed by muscles in your back. My herniated disk was actually caused by no one ever explaining to me that my back muscles need a work out and my desk/computer job is not it. Basically my back muscles were like cheese, so they were not able to protect the disk from damage.

    If you have a desk job and you are lucky enough to read this before you screw your back up, please consider back exercises. They may save you a dosing of excruciating pain.

    So, the disk is herniated which means when it is compressed it compounds the damage (more mayonnaise leaks) and the muscles compress the disk, so you need to relax those muscles, BUT, your nerves are shot which means your leg muscles spasm which causes pain which means you lock up your back which compresses the disk which inflames the nerves which causes your leg muscles to spasm which ... see the pattern here? The first step is to break this cycle.

    My doctor made me sign up to a set of rules to start with. It went something like this: Just lay for a moment and repeat after me. I am screwed and I have to accept that I cannot be anything other than a patient for 3 months. I will not be able to work, have great sex or dance like Elvis for 3 months. I MUST be careful at all times and testosterone or male pride are my enemies. I must comply, learn and listen to what my body tells me. I accept that I am going to have low points and times where I want to give up, however, my body is very clever and if I remain positive and in a mental state where I truly believe that my body can heal itself, then it will.

    PS: He's a really cool doctor.

    Back to breaking the cycle. My doctor put me on series of pill. They were Diazepam (vallium - a muscle relaxant, Norflex (counters pain and cramps) and Prednisone (inflammatory drug which works on the nerves).

    Whilst taking these I HAD to stay in bed for the whole week. I nearly died when my doctor told me this as I am a five hours sleep per night kind of a guy, but weirdly, my body and the drugs all helped and the week in bed shot by and was not bad at all. A word of warning, the Diazepam is not targeted. It relaxes every muscle, so expect to feel yourself sink into the bed and your whole body to behave like jelly.

    Secondly, the bed must be hard with slats on the base. If it is not, then put the mattress on the floor or consider a bed of sofa cushions - You MUST support your back!

    The key to all of this is to get your spine flat. That means elevating your legs a little to relax the lower back muscles. I put two sofa cushions under my knees with a pillow on the top and behind my bum to allow this to happen. Note I am 6'3" and this will vary depending on your height. When you lay down slide your pointed hands under your back. You should feel the same pressure all the way down your spine with no gap between the bed and you in your lower spine.

    Take your time and adjust the height and the bum pillow to get this right.

    After the first week you get up and spend an hour up, then 2 hours lying down. Without pushing it, over the next month this increased to 2 hours up and 2 hours in bed, with some 4 hour stretches. Again, listen to your body. It will tell you when to lay down.

    After the first two weeks I started an exercise regime and you'll think this is hilarious. I was told to stand against a wall facing it and standing upright. I took one leg ad moved it back about ten centimetres five times then repeated with the other foot. To explain, I could not do this for the first few days... kind of shows how in a mess I was.

    The other part of these exercises is to push your shoulders back a few centimetres (effectively arching your spine).... same approach, start with five and work your way up.

    The time in bed decreases and the exercises increase - all very gradually. Any relapse and I headed straight for bed and reduced the repetitions of the exercises.

    PS: You add ten repetitions each week to the exercises cycle.

    After about three weeks I came off the drugs. I was doing well, except for when I slept for over three hours. I would wake up with tremendous pain in my lower back. After sitting or standing for an hour the pain would abate. I eventually discovered that if I put a small fold in the bum pillow it sat my bum up by about five millimetres and the symptoms stopped. After two weeks of being scared to sleep I was able to get a great eight hours sleep every night. I mean it when I say that you have to take your time and adjust your sleeping position night my night and millimetre by millimetre. Log it, discuss it with your partner and use logic to adjust one thing per night until you get it perfect.

    Eventually, I was able to lay on my front and lift one leg at a time (so, same exercises, but laying down and thus lifting the entire weight of the leg... again, you start with five and work your way up).

    When I was getting up to twenty of these I started to go out for a walk.. usually no more than five minute slow (on flat pavement) walks. After each walk I went straight back to bed.

    The walks got longer, the exercises easier and now some eighteen months later I am able to lift 35lbs, weedwack and jump around with my boy.

    My doctor says it takes two years for a complete recovery IF you don't have any setbacks. I get the occasional twinge and head for bed then take it easy for three days, but the bottom line is that I feel 100%...

    The drugs I was given over the time were:

    • Norflex (100MG) - approx 34 tablets (relieves pain and cramps)
    • Prednisone (5MG) - 28 tablets (inflammatory,, reduces the inflammation in the nerves)
    • Diazepam (10MG) - 21 tablets - (vallium - muscle relaxant - nights only)
    • Lansoprazole (80MG) - 717 tablets (I guess this countered a side effect of another of the drugs)
    • Co-Codamol (500MG) - 30 tablets (pain killer)

    My Doctor is Dr Robinson in St Vincent and the Grenadines. He is a general surgeon that suffered the same injury seven years ago - he understands your pain and can relate. He also does not pussy foot around. He tells you like it is. If you are like me, you need to hear the no BS version!

    Dr Robinson, if ever you read this, I cannot thank you enough. You gave me back my active lifestyle and made me a Dad that my son can have fun.

    If you are reading this in agony, the I feel for you - there is hope and I hope this helps.