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What I've Learned About Neck Pain

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How many people regularly have neck pain? A long day filled with stress, too many hours in front of the computer or just being enthralled with a book for hours on end. Well, I recently had cervical(neck) spine surgery and I thought I would share with you, first hand, what I learned during this process, hopefully saving you from making the same mistakes I did.

For some reason, it never occured to me to see a doctor for having a pain in the neck. It seemed I always had a painful neck. Lifting weights and running my own business, I figured it was a combination of tight muscles and/or stress. I would stretch my neck, or head to the massage therapist and feel better--for awhile. The last several years, I headed to the massage therapist when my right hand would get numb, thinking it was a pinched nerve as a result of those tight muscles. Sure enough, she would work it out and I would feel fine. Guess what? My personal prescription quit working!

I finally thought it was best to see my doctor since both of my arms and hands were numb and tingling and walking was getting more and more difficult. It felt as if each of my legs weighed 200 pounds. (Okay, so this was not my most intelligent month.) He recommended an x-ray; I thought it can’t possibly show much of anything. He came back into the room and said, “this looks bad.” He showed me the x-ray and I thought I was looking at the neck of a person who was 100 years old! I really wanted to ask him if this was someone else’s because certainly, that could not belong to me. An MRI was prescribed followed by an urgent referral to a neurosurgeon.

I exited the neurosurgeon's office in complete shock. I was to expect a phone call to schedule major surgery on my neck. To be honest, I was terrified. I studied anatomy and physiology. I am a trainer who specializes in post rehabilitation, muscle balancing, osteoarthritis etc. I believe in strength training to help with osteoarthritis, herniated discs, etc. How could this happen? And to this extent?

Yet, here I am, looking at surgery after hearing phrases such as degenerative disc disease, three herniated discs etc. Ultimately, my diagnosis is cervical spondylosis with cervical myelopathy commonly referred to as cervical spondylotic myelopathy (CSM). In simple terms it means impaired function of the spinal cord caused by degenerative changes of the discs and facet joints in the cervical spine (neck)*.

Some degeneration is normal as we age. After all, I am 57 years old. My situation however, was eye-opening to say the least. Turns out, I have a congenital fusion (I was born with two vertebrae fused together). This is a bit rare, but unfortunately, it often leads to issues such as mine. Vertebrae need to move freely while protecting the nerves that run through the spinal canal. Once there is limited movement in the vertebrae chain, in my case a fusion I was born with, something has to give.

I must point out that not every herniated disc needs to be remedied with surgery. Personally, I have three herniated discs in my neck but only the one was operated on. The other two are not impairing the function of the spinal column. It is because of my strength training along the spine that ultimately kept the surgery to only one disc. Yes, I have a great deal of arthritis, degeneration and herniations in my cervical spine but, thankfully, it is still able to do its job, keeping my head upright and protecting my nerves.

Ultimately, I had what is referred to as an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF). The herniated disc that was reducing my spinal column was removed, a “spacer” was put in its place and a plate was attached to the two vertebrae for support. If all goes well, in about 12 months my vertebrae C3 and C4 will become one.

This is where I need to stress the importance of seeing a doctor sooner rather than later. When I went in for my post-operative visit, I met a gentleman who was going to go through surgery the following morning. He had the same surgeon I had yet this gentleman was getting two discs replaced. End result with replacements versus fusion, he would have a full range of motion in his neck. My thought and question: why does he get replacements and I had a fusion?

My disc and vertebrae were so degenerated that there wasn’t enough space left to do a replacement. Can’t replace what isn’t there is my interpretation. I had to have more than 3mm between vertebrae to have the replacement.

So to wrap it all up:

1) Neck pain is serious stuff--especially when accompanied by numbness and tingling.

2) See your doctor sooner rather than later with any type of back pain when it seems to affect your legs or arms.

3) Get serious about strength training. Herniated or bulging discs, arthritis and spinal stenosis do not automatically mean surgery. Support your spine, it has a big job to do.

4) Find yourself a qualified, educated personal trainer to help you strengthen your muscles correctly and safely. (I did it right as far as strengthening, I just missed the signs of trauma...on myself.) I honestly have never told my clients to “push through the pain.” It just would have helped if I followed my own recommendations to my clients.

Devoted Solely to Those Who Don't Just Want to Move, Feel & Think Better... But LIVE Better!

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