A lifelong competitor, Bridget Simon-Friedt’s active lifestyle was almost derailed by excruciating nerve pain. Learn how she overcame it.
If you saw Bridget Simon-Friedt, you’d probably never guess the vibrant 35-year-old was facing debilitating back pain and numbness through her foot and ankle a little over a year ago. “Overnight my world changed,” recalls the Louisiana-native, Houston area researcher.
Bridget, who has a PhD in biomedical toxicology, hit the gym every morning for resistance training and cardio before work for years — until a back injury stopped her in her tracks.
Thanks to a cutting edge form of minimally invasive spinal surgery, a supportive social network, and a generous dose of motivation, today her world looks a lot like it did pre-injury.
In April 2020, Bridget was working out as usual; she’d completed her weightlifting routine and was 1.5 miles into her typical three-mile run when she noticed a sharp pain in her right glute.
“It was sore when I woke up that morning, but as I ran it became progressively sharper and very painful with every step.” She contemplated calling her husband for a ride but instead slowed her pace and made her way home by foot. In hindsight, she says it was her first sign that something was seriously wrong.
Fitness, she says, has always been “a huge part of my life. [Being a competitor] is part of my identity.” As a kid, she’d been heavily involved in dance, focusing on tennis in high school and college, and running. For most of her adult life, her fitness regimen included five weightlifting sessions per week as well as running and spin classes. At times, she’d run up to 30 miles per week.
As someone who enjoyed challenging herself, Bridget was used to discomfort. But this pain was unlike anything she’d ever experienced. The pain was localized and sharp, to the point where it was uncomfortable to even sit at a desk.
After a virtual doctor’s visit, she thought it was a muscle strain. “I thought it was a typical runner injury,” Bridget recalls. She took Ibuprofen and stayed active, although she temporarily avoided running. When the pain subsided a couple of weeks later, she went back to her typical routine, assuming the worst was behind her.
But the following fall, in September 2020, it became clear that her journey was just beginning. The gym had recently reopened as pandemic restrictions lifted, and she was thrilled to be back in her routine. Just as she had done every pre-pandemic weekday, she’d risen at 4:30 AM to hit the gym for her usual 90-minute early morning workout.
She was warming up for her first set of deadlifts when she felt a pain so severe that she had to sit down. Again, it was in her right glute, but this time, it didn’t feel like a muscle strain. It was “almost nauseating,” with “excruciating pain” and significant numbness in her right ankle and foot. With limited sensation in her foot, Bridget walked with a limp.
The next day, she felt markedly worse. “I was in so much pain that when I tried to get out of bed I blacked out.”
Her husband took her to the emergency room at Houston Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, he wasn’t initially allowed in the exam room with her. For Bridget, who’d never even had a broken bone, “the experience was scary” she recalls. Alone in the hospital, she had some very specific fears. “I was afraid that I would never be able to walk or run again.” Understandably, she worried about losing her identity as an athlete. “I was really worried that I wouldn't be able to be myself again.”
Within a week, Bridget underwent minimally invasive spine surgery. According to her surgeon, Meng Huang, MD, Complex and Minimally Invasive Spine Neurosurgeon and Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at the Houston Methodist Neurological Institute, she had an L4-L5 disc herniation causing severe sciatica.
According to Dr. Huang, Bridget had a partial foot drop and also advanced degenerative disc disease at the L4-L5 level. He recalls, “I was concerned that a standard discectomy would have destabilized her spine and resulted in the need for a spinal fusion, which is ideally avoided in younger highly active patients.” He performed a transforaminal endoscopic discectomy with the goal of relieving pressure on the nerve by removing the compressive disc fragment while minimizing the surgical trauma to her spine.
Dr. Huang’s surgical method—endoscopic discectomy—was even less invasive than traditional minimally invasive procedures, which he says are typically performed using a tubular retractor and using an operating microscope. It is even possible to perform this surgery under local anesthesia with IV sedation, which reduces the risks associated with general anesthesia.
The vast majority of patients with disc herniations are good candidates for endoscopic discectomy, says Dr. Huang. However, he says it is not yet widely offered by surgeons in the United States largely due to the steep learning curve, technical difficulty, and high equipment costs associated with the technique.
Both Bridget and Dr. Huang are both pleased with the outcome. Bridget says the surgery lasted an hour and has left her with a scar only the size of a freckle. Most important, she felt immediate pain relief. As a bonus, she walked out of the hospital within two hours of surgery as hers was performed with local anesthesia and IV sedation only.
Although her balance is continuing to improve as the nerves in her foot continue to recover, her most prominent symptoms resolved immediately. She didn’t need to take any pain medication — including Tylenol — post-surgery.
Despite the immediate pain relief, Bridget’s recovery has had some obstacles as her nerve function is gradually returning. Always one to track her workouts, she says “I like to see the progress that I make.” Her back surgery comeback didn’t follow the type of upward progression she was used to with resistance training. Often, it felt like she’d take two steps forward and one step back. “The walking and recovery path was very odd,” she recalls. “For example, for three days in a row I would see improvement and then day four would be a setback such as increased numbness or a different sensation.”
Her support system helped get her through the hard days. Since the pandemic started, she and a few friends had been keeping each other motivated to walk an hour a day. One of her walking buddies had experienced a similar back injury; he was an invaluable resource. She’s grateful to have someone who’d been there “to reassure me that maybe this week is an off week but it gets better,” says Bridget. Her friends were also willing to walk as slow as she needed while the nerve damage in her foot could recover enough to work back to her normal pace.
Bridget’s creativity and flexibility were also key factors in her back surgery recovery. Although she was initially saddled with significant activity restrictions, including no bending, lifting, or twisting, she was committed to staying active in any way she could. When she was only permitted to lift a maximum of five pounds, she’d increase her repetitions and sets. She also became adept at slowing down and listening to her body to avoid overdoing it.
Today Bridget is thrilled with her progress. She’s running, cycling, and taking spin classes regularly again. She’s also lifting weights again with some modifications. She’s no longer allowed to perform lifts that would put significant weight on her spine such as barbell deadlifts and conventional barbell squats, but with some ingenuity, she’s found ways to build strength while working around her restrictions. For example, instead of doing barbell squats, Bridget might use the leg extension machine to work quads. And while it’s not the same, she’s grateful to be back in the gym, lifting, running, walking, and continuing to grow stronger.
“I do miss some things that I wish I could still do, but I'm truly just grateful to be able to walk and run,” says Bridget, adding, “I think about that every single day, and I don't take what I can do for granted.”