I am so very lucky when it comes to health care options. It’s distressing to think of the millions of people live (and used to live) with deep or searing chronic pain who did not have this kind of treatment available. I was lucky to have good health insurance and highly competent doctors. No one, however, should have to deal with this sort of pain without treatment and hope.
For the past two years, I’ve been struggling with a pinched nerve in my neck that caused serious pain in my left arm and left side of my back. On several occasions, I referenced some of the treatment I have been receiving, including this post on acupuncture, this post on the incredible fact that there is a skeleton inside my body, and this confession that I don’t do well when it comes to getting injections (a post which sprang from my need to have epidural injections for pain relief).
I’ve had all kinds of conservative treatment, including intensive physical therapy. None of my conservative treatments worked.
The most recent symptom was numbness several in my fingers (feeling in some of my fingers came back, but not in my left index finger). It’s worth taking the time to tell you what my doctor told me about numbness. If you have it, permanent nerve damage is being done. If you don’t jump on it and address it quickly (within a matter of weeks), you might lose that sensation permanently. Numbness is different than pain, then, which doesn’t usually cause permanent injury.
Because I had significant numbness, I had surgery, which occurred four days ago. It was an “anterior cervical corpectomy/discectomy and fusion, with bone graph and instrumentation.” What this means is that the surgeon removed two of my cervical disks, freed up my pinched nerves by carefully drilling out bone (there turned out to be four of them in the operative field), filled the now-empty disc space with my own bone and cadaver bone, and locked three vertebrae and the new bones into place with a titanium plate with screws.
Here’s a recent x-ray, where you can see my deformed lower vertebrae. During the operation, my doctor verified that my vertebrae were covered with bone spurs, which have now all been trimmed clean to allow my nerve roots to reach down into my arms. BTW, if you are middle-aged (broadly defined!), your spine isn’t so pretty either, but if you’re lucky you are asymptomatic. Tongue in cheek, Dr. Riew had initially advised me that I had “gray hair of the spine.”
Here’s the incision: about 2 inches wide on the front of my neck. The sight of it makes many of my friends squeamish. The surgeon goes in at this site (using a microscope) and gently pushes the trachea an esophagus out of the way in order to see what he needs to see (that causes minor temporary swallowing problems in many patients, including me).
I was taking slow walks around the hospital floor on the night of the surgery (with a drip assembly in tow). I was released the following day—hospitals plainly tell patients that hospitals are not a good place for people–once you are able to leave you should leave, due to the risks of super-germs. Yesterday, I took two tablets of Tylenol. Today, I am not taking any drugs at all, even though I was provided with strong scheduled medications). I thus commend my surgeon (Dr. Daniel Riew of Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis). Who would have thought that on each of the past two days, I would have been able to crank hard for 30-minutes on a stationary bicycle? Really and truly, this was a medical miracle, one which happens in hospitals every day in order to relive people of chronic pain so that they can reclaim their lives. At least those of us with medical insurance. At the hospital, several people told me that the best way to prepare for an operation is to be physically fit when you go in. I worked out almost every day for a month before the surgery and I’m assuming that this was a big factor in my ability to be able to pop back up soon after surgery. I know that many other patients for this type of surgery can be flat on their backs for one or two weeks. I personally know another person — a regular at this site–who had this same surgery. Perhaps he might want to come forth an share his experiences too . . .
Here’s the bottom line: The pain in my arm is now gone, the pain in my back is almost gone. I do have some lingering numbness in my left index fingers, though it has improved a bit. I’ve been told that there is a decent chance that I will get my feeling back in that finger within the next few months (this is critical to me, because I am an avid guitarist). A surprise bonus is that my “good” hand is now improved. I was suffering some nerve impingement there too, but didn’t’ attribute that stiffness to a nerve problem.
Even though I’m squeamish about needles, I got over the fact that I was stuck with an IV for my entire stay. Not that I stared at this line much.
Now, all I need to do is to wear a plastic neck collar for six to eight weeks (the “Miami J Collar”). Here’s what it looks like (see photo below). I did wake up, panicked and claustrophobic, several times this week. I’m hoping that panicked feeling doesn’t return each night, or it will be a long six weeks. This panicky feeling does make me appreciate, though, how difficult it must be for many other patients who need to have large parts of their bodies (or their entire bodies) locked down for extensive periods.
I did want to give this epilogue in that I had mentioned (= whined about) my symptoms on several prior posts. But everything looks good now, and assuming that the bones all heal correctly, I will not be physically limited in any way, other than having a modest loss in range of motion in my cervical spine. To me, it was well worth it to give up some neck motion to get rid of the arm and back pain and (hopefully) to recover feeling in my left hand. It was worth it, even though I need to constantly explain to people that I didn’t have neck pain, but that they needed to operate on my neck to fix my back, arm and hand.
If you know anyone with hand numbness, there might be hope for them too, but send them this post and urge them to not put off a doctor visit or else they might suffer permanent damage.