'I feared I would end up in a wheelchair,' says Melinda
Former model and TV presenter Melinda Messenger feared the worst when chronic back pain left her in agony. She tells Gabrielle Fagan how the support and love of her partner helped her to cope
It was the moment Melinda Messenger feared her life would never be the same again. She collapsed while alone at home and was reduced to dragging herself across her kitchen floor in a desperate, but unsuccessful, attempt to get up.
"I was sobbing because of the pain and shock and couldn't stand or walk. I really wondered, 'Am I going to end up in a wheelchair and never walk properly again?' I was terrified of what the future might hold and how I would cope," reveals the TV presenter who first found fame in 1997 as a celebrated Page Three Girl.
There was nothing remotely glamorous about her predicament that day. It was the first of six traumatic collapses she suffered following a ruptured disc in her back.
Messenger, who's worked on shows including Channel Five's Cowboy Builders and Live On Five, is talking at her home in Reading, Berkshire, about the health crisis that changed her life and her outlook.
"I've always been fit, healthy and active and enjoy cycling, yoga, gardening and, of course, rushing around looking after the family and working," says the 45-year-old, who in 2009 took part in the physically demanding TV series, Dancing On Ice.
It's a busy bustling household as she lives with her partner, skiing coach, Warren Smith - the couple met and fell in love when she competed on winter sports show, The Jump in 2014 - as well as her children Morgan (16), Flynn (15), and Evie (13), from her marriage to Wayne Roberts that ended in 2012, and Warren's son, Callum (13).
She was completely baffled when she woke up in September 2015 with such agonising back pain that she couldn't get out of bed.
"I couldn't walk, had this horrible pain in my lower back and a shooting pain down my right leg. Warren carried me to the car and into the doctor's surgery where I was given pain-relieving medication and sent home," she recalls.
"A few hours later an excruciating pain exploded in my back. I literally felt as though I'd been cut in half. Warren called an ambulance and I screamed all the way to hospital until I actually passed out from the pain. I was passing blood, thought I was going to die, and actually wanted to because I couldn't bear the agony.
"I'm not someone to make a fuss. After having three children, and no pain relief for my third delivery, I know about coping with serious pain, but this was far worse than anything I've ever felt in my life."
An MRI scan revealed a ruptured or slipped disc (known as a prolapsed or herniated disc) which occurs when one of the discs sitting between the spinal bones is damaged and presses on nerves.
As the outer casing of the disc splits, the contents bulge out, causing pain in the local area and affecting nerve supply to other areas of the body.
It's one of the most common causes of lower back and leg pain for adults in the UK. The majority of people recover or find relief through non-surgical methods, with only around 2% needing an operation.
Nothing prepared Messenger for the impact on her life as she spent weeks totally incapacitated and six months in constant pain.
"I had dark days when I totally despaired as it felt like there was no end in sight. The condition decimated my quality of life. The pain made me feel constantly nauseated, was so bad it took my breath away at times, and kept me awake at night. Often I couldn't move at all and simple things like walking the children to school, getting dressed, making a coffee or seeing friends, were impossible," she says.
She was so fearful when her legs, without warning, began giving way beneath her a few months after her initial diagnosis that she underwent a second MRI scan.
"I was exhausted and down and convinced myself there was something else even more serious going on, but to my relief, the scan confirmed the original diagnosis. I think my legs seized up because the muscles can spasm around the injury, but that hasn't happened since June," she says.
Effective pain relief was essential and Messenger benefitted from a pain management service offered free by LloydsPharmacy.
"It was wonderful to offload my feelings of frustration by talking to experts who advised me on a specific pain relief programme and helped me pinpoint and avoid triggers which could aggravate my condition," she says.
Bed rest, medical treatment and physiotherapy, as well as herbal remedies have helped put her on the road to recovery. She's working again and hopes to be fully fit within six months.
Without the support of her partner, though, Messenger believes the last year could have been even bleaker.
"I don't know what I would have done without Warren. He took over running the family and the house and was amazing," she says of the man she devotedly calls her "soul mate".
"Although this could have put a strain on our relationship, I think it's bonded us more. He's suffered this problem himself, recovered, and developed therapy techniques to aid recovery, so I felt in totally safe hands," she says.
"Most importantly, he completely understood what I was going through emotionally and constantly boosted me by telling me I'd get through it. Ironically, despite what I've gone through, and thanks in part to him, I feel I've got the highest level of peace I've experienced in a long time. I feel in a really good place."
She describes the whole experience as "life changing" because it made her re-evaluate her life and lifestyle. "I suspect I was born with a weakness in my back - my brother has had the same problem - but this made me realise I'd taken my health for granted and hadn't given myself enough care," she says.
"I've learnt for the first time in my life how to ask for help when I need it and to relinquish my fierce independent streak.
"At times I've driven myself too hard trying to do everything for me and the kids, but now I take life at a slower pace. The whole thing totally knocked my confidence and I've also had to work on building that back up.
"I still have to be careful with my back, but now there are many more good days than bad. While the pain can still sometimes bring me to tears, I'm not frightened of it any more and can handle it. I'm just looking forward to a time when this is behind me, but I also appreciate what I've learnt from it."
- LloydsPharmacy free Pain Management Service involves a private, one-to-one consultation with a pharmacist, who may advise on adjustments to your current medication and lifestyle which could help you manage the pain. Visit www.lloydspharmacy.com/en/info/pain-management-service