backcountry skier in the mountains
November 30, 2017 | by The Polyclinic

To say Adam Kollgaard leads an active lifestyle is a bit of an understatement. In his spare time, he’s more likely to be pursuing his next outdoor adventure than binge-watching the latest TV shows. He enjoys a variety of challenging activities including skiing, mountain biking, climbing, backpacking, running, and windsurfing. A lifelong athlete, Adam is used to pushing himself in sports and physical activities. A back injury in July 2015 brought his active lifestyle to a standstill, however.

Patient’s Sporting Life Was Severely Curtailed

Recent traumatic events in skiing and weight lifting—combined with a lifetime of wear and tear from competitive and recreational sports—left Adam with painful and disruptive sciatic nerve pain, in addition to chronic back pain. Over time, he experienced reduced strength on his left side, in addition to lost reflexes.

“Initially, my condition prevented me from participating in all the outdoor activities I love,” Adam shared. “As my symptoms grew worse, I was no longer able to ride my bike to work. Eventually, I had difficulty even walking and sitting in a car for extended periods. As a former collegiate athlete, it was very challenging to be reduced to this level of inactivity.”

Adam Tried a Range of Non-Surgical Treatments First

Adam sought help from many physical therapists, sports rehab specialists, and chiropractors for about a year after his injury. When non-surgical solutions seemed to be exhausted, he was referred to The Polyclinic Orthopedics Department by a local walk-in clinic. Polyclinic physician assistant Blaine Etzel referred him for an MRI, and confirmed a diagnosis of a large disc extrusion on L5-S1. At that point, Adam knew he was probably looking at surgery. He scheduled an appointment with Polyclinic spine surgeon, Dr. Sean Keem, another recommendation from the clinic he’d visited.

A Microdiscectomy Resolved the Back/Leg Pain and Dysfunction

Adam’s advice to others facing similar injuries: "Don't give up! There's hope for recovery. If you elect to have surgery, I found that working with a good physical therapist was very helpful for returning to prior activity levels.”

In August 2016, Dr. Keem performed a microdiscectomy at Swedish Orthopedic Institute to address Adam’s lumbar herniated disc. During the 45-minute, outpatient procedure, Dr. Keem removed a protrusion of the disc that compressed the nerves in the spine which control leg movement and sensation. He performed the surgery through a small incision less than one-inch in diameter under a high-performance surgical microscope.

Adam was able to go home and walk the same day, and slowly began ramping up his activity level. He returned to work about a week after surgery and carefully returned to some exercises after eight weeks. By around six months, he was able to do strenuous exercise, though he still avoided weight lifting, other than in physical therapy.

“After surgery, I have had an almost 100% recovery,” Adam said. “I still take caution and back off when necessary, but I have been able to return to every activity I did before my back issue.”

Back to Mountaineering and More

In spring 2017, Adam achieved one of his major goals for recovery: returning to ski mountaineering with a summit of Mt. Hood.

“I was joined by a friend who lived in the area who acted as my local guide. Together we ‘skinned’ (adding fabric strips to skis that let you slide forward without slipping back), from Timberline Lodge to Illumination Rock wearing overnight packs (mine was 39 pounds), where we spent the night. Neither of us slept much with the howling wind. We started around 4 a.m. the next morning, leaving our overnight gear at Illumination Rock.We then ‘skinned up’ the West Crater Rim route until the terrain became too steep for skis. At that point, we strapped our skis onto our packs, put on crampons and boot-packed the steep (45 degrees in places) snow slope to the summit."

"Due to the high winds and deep snow, it was very tough going. Eventually we persevered, took a quick summit photo, and skied from just below the summit back to Illumination Rock and then down to Timberline. After reaching Timberline Lodge, we both sat on a bench speechless and exhausted for about 15 minutes. Later we agreed it was one of the hardest summits we've done, and the fact that I was able to do it only 8 months after surgery was miraculous.”