I herniated L5-S1 when putting my bike in the back of the truck in 2002. Simple as that.
My symptoms were mid-intensity pain (5 or 6 on my scale) sciatica of the left leg. No numbness, no loss of strength (if you have those, you're in serious shit, as others have said, because it can kill the nerve). So my doctor's took a very "wait and see" approach, because a majority of herniations repair themselves over 6 to 9 months.
Well, rehab was too expensive and didn't produce much relief.
Cortasone shots didn't work for me (but for some, they're miracles).
And I ended up spending about 9 months on vicodin and muscle relaxers.
Now, vicodin is terrific (except for the constipation), but that's no damn way to live. My exercising came to a screeching halt because it aggravated my pain to the point I had to go to an ER.
After 9 months, I had the lamenectomy. And after that, it was 6 months before I was back in the gym, and a year before I was bike riding again. But, after about the first year, I was 100 percent, and still am. I can't mountain bike the way I used to, though (bike riding is extremely hard on L5-S1).
My recommendations would be:
1) Stay off narcotics because they become a crutch (or perhaps that's just me). If the pain is that bad that you need narcotics, well, you have a big problem and perhaps shouldn't say surgery's out of the question.
2) Work on rehab type exercises on your own as often as you can. They do help some.
3) Seek out a good doctor to explore cortisone shots, and I recommend Dr. Bainebridge down in the Tech Center area. Dr. Bainebridge worked on me after I herniated cervical disc C7-T1 (which was injured in June kayaking), and one cortizone injection made me good as new (but I can't do standard situps anymore and probably never will again, which hurts my yaking prep a bit). I've since heard Bainebridge has an exceptional reputation among sport & spine specialists. PM me if interested and I'll give you his office phone.
I certainly understand hesitation about surgery, but the only 'horror stories' that I've heard are from people who really didn't take care of themselves before or after injury and surgery.
"self-aggrandizing jackass" - it says it right on the label