How Back Pain Interrupted My College Education

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I was lucky enough to never experience much physical pain as a child. I had the normal cuts and bruises (I’ve still got a scar on my index finger from my first pocket knife), but I never broke a bone or had to have any type of surgery.

In fact, my first experience with severe pain wasn’t until my freshman year of college.

Near the beginning of my second semester, I woke up one morning with a sharp pain running down the back of my entire left leg. The pain seemed to come out of nowhere — I had no idea at all what had caused it, and the night before had just seemed like any other night.

Over the course of that first day, the pain came and went, but mostly seemed to be getting better. It was annoying, but I wasn’t too worried about it. I assumed that I had slept in a funny position or something along those lines, and that the pain would go away the next day.

Unfortunately, when I woke up the next morning, the pain was still there, just as bad as the first day had been.

Ignoring the Problem

For the rest of my freshman year, I did my best to just ignore the pain. There were some days when it would practically disappear, and other days when it would get so bad that I couldn’t even concentrate in class. For some reason though, I was too stubborn to actually go see a doctor.

Looking back over a decade later, it’s hard for me to remember exactly why I didn’t go to a doctor sooner. I might have been scared, thinking that seeing a doctor would somehow make the problem feel too “real.” Or I might have just been a lazy college student.

Either way, instead of getting medical help, I tried to manage the pain on my own. I took ibuprofen on the bad days, which helped a little. I also realized early on that going on walks seemed to ease the pain, so I’d spend afternoons wandering all over campus.

Throughout the year the pain continued to get worse, and by the time that summer arrived, the pain had spread to my lower back.

Physical Therapy and Painkillers

That summer, at my parents’ insistence, I finally agreed to see a doctor about my back pain. I had x-rays and an MRI done. The doctor discovered that I had not just one, but three slipped discs in my lower back. The discs were pinching nerves, which was what caused the pain running down my leg.

I also learned that I had a congenital issue with my spine that made it much more likely for me to herniate discs. Although herniated discs are often caused by falls and accidents, in my case just sitting too much could be the cause.

The doctor recommended focusing on non-surgical options, to begin with. I was referred to a physical therapist and put on heavy-duty prescription painkillers.

The physical therapy and painkillers lasted through my entire sophomore year and the following summer. The painkillers did a good job of reducing the pain, and the physical therapy gradually helped. I worked on improving my posture, did strength exercises for my back, and did a little flexibility work.

My pain persisted, but it seemed to be heading in the right direction. I was very good about following through on my physical therapy exercises, making sure to keep to my recommended at-home exercises. For a while, I was confident that the pain would eventually go away entirely.

Then my junior year came, and the pain suddenly got dramatically worse.


I barely made it through the first semester of my junior year. The pain in my back was distracting me from class and keeping me up all night. I remember a one-week period where I barely slept more than a few hours. Even when I was awake, I felt like I couldn’t think clearly about anything.

Every day, I considered dropping out, but I pushed through to finish the semester. After my final exam, I went on a leave of absence, not sure whether I’d ever return to school.

I moved back to my parents’ house and started seeing a wider variety of doctors, looking for any solution to my pain. Finally, I settled on having back surgery. I was told that it might relieve all the pain, it might relieve just some, and it might have no effect at all. I felt like regardless of how it might turn out, I had to try.

A small part of me was scared of having surgery, but mostly I was just eager for anything that might relieve my pain. I was fortunate enough that the surgery I had was among the least-invasive of any back surgery. They’d cut open my back, trim down the discs, and sew me back up.

I was put under for the surgery, so I don’t remember anything aside from waking up and feeling very out of it. The only painful part of the surgery experience was the catheter tube after I was awake. After surgery, I had a couple months of recovery, the first couple weeks of which I spent mostly in bed.

To my amazement and eternal gratitude, the surgery eliminated the pain completely. I have never again experienced back pain since that day. Most people with chronic back pain don’t have this happy ending, and I am forever grateful that I did. I was even able to return to school the next semester.

What I Learned About Pain

The biggest lesson I learned from my entire experience is that physical pain can also be mentally debilitating. This is something I might have understood on an intellectual level, but I didn’t truly grasp that the physical pain can affect your mind to such a strong degree.

During my junior year of college, the physical pain interrupted my sleep, ruined my concentration, and left me feeling constantly hopeless and anxious.

People suffering from chronic pain need our empathy and understanding. It isn’t solely a physical problem, it’s a psychological battle as well.

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more. Buy me a “coffee” at

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