Back-to-Surf: My journey back to surfing after lumbar spine surgery

Back-to-Surf: My journey back to surfing after multiple lumbar spine surgeries

Spoiler alert: if you’re reading this hoping that you can glean “3-5 Simple Exercises You Can do to Avoid Back Surgery”, then I have to tell you, this article probably won’t help you.

What I will tell you is that chronic low back pain is complicated, for many it can be an ongoing battle, and while exercise can help in some instances, it’s not a solve-all. 

Instead of banking on exercise alone to get you through your back-pain journey, I would like to share with you a more holistic approach of how I got through 3 back surgeries, found balance again in my soul, and ultimately got back in the water surfing on both long and short boards. The journey is not over yet, but I want to let you know that surfing after back surgery is 100% possible, and in fact, you may just feel a whole lot better than you have in years. 

As a Physical Therapist, my career and livelihood is based on keeping people strong and healthy, and in a lot of ways, advocating to avoid surgery.

I work as a cash-based wellness practitioner and see a lot of marketing among my peers that make claims such as: avoid needless injections or surgery by going to physiotherapy at Brand X PT.  Before back surgery, I completely understood this marketing viewpoint, but after a successful spinal fusion (and 6+ years of failed conservative management in adjunct with 2 spinal decompression surgeries), these marketing claims make me cringe. Here’s what I’d like to get up on my soapbox and say: Just as surgery isn’t for everyone, physical therapy and conservative management of any condition has a place, but it is not for everyone either. 

I’m not saying that I’m a fan of “The Knife”. I’m not. Personally, I tried to avoid surgery like the plague.

I did plenty of physical therapy and conservative management alongside of the following treatments:  

  • pilates
  • yoga
  • breath-work
  • acupuncture
  • visceral manipulation
  • rest 
  • anti-inflammatories
  • career modifications
  • craniosacral therapy
  • Trigger point work
  • Massage
  • Reiki and other energy work,
  •  cold immersion, 
  • miracle balls
  • foam rolling
  • stretching
  • meditation
  •  journaling
  • art
  • counseling
  • coaching
  • thought replacement
  • Positive affirmations/mantras
  • home exercises
  • stem cell replacement and PRP
  • essential oils
  • oral turmeric
  • Arnica
  • cupping
  • dietary supplements
  • infrared saunas
  • hemp oil
  •  giving up dairy, gluten, alcohol and caffeine
  • epidurals
  • facet injections
  • ice/heat 
  • sleeping on the floor
  • sleeping in a tempurpedic bed

and the list goes on. 

If you’re reading this and have been dealing with back pain for a long period of time, chances are you can totally relate to this list. If you’re anything like I was, though, the fear and anxiety around surgery, specifically a spinal fusion, doesn’t feel like the right fit, either.  

My journey with lumbar disc herniation and back pain began in 1997 when I was a senior in high school.

Whether it was the water skiing accident, countless hours of gymnastics, a slide tackle playing in a summer soccer league that took me down, or just bad genes, I don’t know - but I spent that summer pretty much laid up with some of the most excruciating pain I’d ever experienced.  

Doctors tried to tell me I was too young to have anything wrong with my back and neglected to obtain proper imaging studies so that I’d understand what I was going to be working with for the rest of my life. I spent my freshman year in college in the athletic training room doing PT, pool therapy and aggressively rehabbing my back so that I could row and cox an 8-shell crew boat.  

I honestly stayed fairly strong until my mid 30’s when I discovered I had severe degenerative disc disease and lumbar disc herniation at my L4/L5 segment. While there were physical things like lifting and maneuvering heavy objects and patients around at work, it was probably the less obvious things that I believe ultimately contributed to my re-injury.  

I went through a decade of overworking and severe financial stress, I had a lack of boundaries between my work and family life, I had a serious case of burnout, I was generally weak from weekend-warrior surfing and then sitting on the computer too much. All of it set me up for a perfect storm to re-herniate my L4-L5 lumbar disc.  

I tried to cope with 9 months of conservative management, but I ended up with my 1st lumbar decompression surgery in 2014. It kind of helped, kind of didn’t. I found my way back to the ocean about 3-4 months after surgery and over the years would deal with a few episodes of twinges that kept me sidelined occasionally.  

Then came the slip-in-poo at work incident in 2017. It’s kind of ridiculous (see blog about it here) but ultimately, I re-injured my herniated disc by slipping in poo while transferring a patient to a chair. I quickly learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of medical care in a work-comp claim and found myself in Panama paying out of pocket for medical care so that I could get my life back on track.  

Fast forward 5 months after my second lumbar decompression surgery in Panama, when I came down with a cold, sneezed, (yes sneezed) and obliterated the L4/5 disc once again. At that time, I’d surfed twice over the course of a year and felt that my return to the ocean was pretty much hopeless. I could barely walk on uneven surfaces or sand, let alone carry a longboard down several flights of stairs to the beach. I’d have some good days, but then I’d do just one little thing wrong, and I’d be set back for weeks.  

Fear and more fear kept me from moving forwards with the lumbar fusion surgery that was being recommended by several orthopedic and Neuro docs, until the day came when I could no longer stand or walk greater than 2 minutes without severe burning, searing pain in my right leg and foot. Only then did I know it was time to do the more aggressive surgery.  

At 39 years of age I was no longer living my life. I was existing.

I was miserable. I knew that psychologically, if I didn’t do something, that the physical pain could have long-lasting deleterious effects. So I decided to move forwards with it.

Here’s the steps that I took: 

  • I triangulated with 3 spine specialists/surgeons. They all pretty much recommended the same thing: a single-level spinal fusion, using a transverse lateral approach in order to avoid nerve damage from years of scar tissue formation. 
  • I spoke with multiple pain management docs because I can’t take narcotics and I didn’t know how to get off of anti-inflammatories before surgery, and then not have a recourse thereafter. 
  • In the days leading up to the procedure I sat (or more appropriately lay down) through online breathwork classes with my coach Kamryn so that I could deal with the pain. 
  • I managed my anxiety and fear through coaching sessions with my life coach Mindy and got my mindset strong. 
  • I had a cold compress machine set up so that after surgery I had access to icing my back as much as needed in place of narcotic medications that I couldn’t physically take. 
  • I joined a support group on Facebook for lumbar fusion surgeries  

April 17th, 2019 I underwent my surgery and April 20th, Easter Sunday, I came home. Three days in the hospital advocating for my health/life was exhausting. In western medicine we have medication for everything, and a medication for a side effect of a medication, and a lot of it in my mind, is overdone in fear of legal suit. Needless to say, by the time I got home, I knew that I’d made the right decision 

Within the 4 months that ensued post-operatively, I took the following measures to ensure my recovery was optimal: 

  • walked daily trying to get to 10k steps/ day as soon as my doctor cleared me
  • weaned pain meds and Tylenol as soon as possible, but used it as needed for tough days
  • gave up inflammatory foods and beverages
  • slept and rested a lot 
  • iced profusely
  • began physical therapy
  • restarted Pilates
  • continued with life coaching sessions to help me through some business changes and mindset changes
  • completed my yoga teacher training
  • honored that who I am now, is not who I was before surgery, and that is 100% okay. 
  • started paddling my longboard and a SUP
  • surfed a short board for the first time in warm water (Costa Rica)
  • created boundaries and safeguards in my life to prevent this from happening again

My journey, 5 months since my lumbar fusion has been more positive, and given me more of my life back than I had experienced in 5 years prior to the surgery. For the first time in years there are long periods of time when I don’t even think about my back. I can see that it is possible to actually be stronger and improve my quality of life in my 40’s - more so than I felt in my 20’s and 30’s. I can see myself building physical and emotional strength that I didn’t know was possible. 

I can’t say that the journey is over yet, and I can’t say I am surfing better than I did in my 20’s. I can say that I’m alive again, enjoying the ocean, enjoying my life again, and that is all I could have ever hoped for. Surgery is a blessing, not a curse. It’s useful, and there are tons of complications and side-effects that can go with, but if you’re willing to do the work, above and beyond a few simple exercises to stop pain, I believe that you, too, will find your path back to surf again.  

If you or someone you know is trying to get back to surfing after a back or hip injury, please know that you don’t have to go-it alone. Check out my online Back-To-Surf guided wellness course and consultation options at, here.   

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