Neck Surgery? That’s a No for Me

The year I turned 50, I looked in the mirror and realized that I had been gaining weight for about 10 years. So I decided to do something about that. Working as an OB/GYN physician for around 80 hours per week, I was used to eating on the run. Lots of fast food, late night pizza with labor and delivery nurses, and pastries for breakfast. At 5’11” and 205pounds, I didn’t meet the criteria for obesity, but I was certainly getting uncomfortable. Tying my shoes was difficult and left me out of breath. If you know, you know.

I didn’t really have time (I thought) to engage in long bouts of physical fitness, jogging, weight lifting, or working with a fitness trainer so I decided to change the way I ate. I found a homeopathic version of human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) that I could dose under my tongue and proceeded to lose 42 pounds in 31 days.

Although the FDA doesn’t regard HCG beneficial for weight loss, it does increase lipolysis. With my dietary changes, I was literally burning fat at a rate of over one pound daily. At 163 pounds, I went straight ketogenic and completely cut out carbohydrates. I was even weighing my food on a scale and calculating calories so that I could stay within 1 or 2 pounds of that 42 pound weight loss.

After three weeks of no carbohydrates, I managed to find the time to hire a fitness trainer and started a physical regimen that took me one hour a day for five days a week. By the time I turned 51, I was in the best shape of my life and I felt great. However, one of the training exercises flared an old baseball injury that I hadn’t thought about for a number of years. While playing Little League baseball, I threw a guy out at home from the center field fence after he tagged up on third base on a fly ball that I managed to catch. When releasing the baseball, I both heard and felt a creaking sound from my right shoulder. And being the young ten feet tall and bullet-proof male I was at that time, I shook it off and didn’t think any more about it. I really had no repercussions from that play (it was amazing!) until a number of years later.

In my thirties, I started noticing a little pain running down my arm into the 4th and 5th fingers of my right hand accompanied by a little loss of sensation in those fingers. It was intermittent discomfort but it didn’t slow me down, affect me in surgery, or interrupt my life in any way.

I had occasional headaches that I thought were migraines based on symptoms and self diagnosis. I could usually take 800 mg of ibuprofen, lie down and sleep for 30 minutes and they would dissipate.

However, one day in surgery, I got a headache that made me dizzy, nauseated, and I felt like I was going to pass out. I was in the middle of doing a vaginal hysterectomy but I had to sit down, drink some orange juice, and regroup in order to continue the operation.

Since that was scary, I had a MRI of the head and neck. That showed that I had an arachnoid cyst under my occipital bone on the right. I also found out that I had narrowing in my cervical vertebrae at three levels. On top of that, I had spinal stenosis in my neck. Here is what my cyst would look on CT scan:

I saw a neurosurgeon who offered to put a needle in my head to drain the cyst. I declined. I had been seeing a chiropractor for intermittent adjustments and the neurosurgeon said I should absolutely not do that. So of course, that’s exactly what I did.

All was well for the next 16 years until June of 2011 when I began having significant pain, weakness, and tingling down my right arm accompanied by aching pain in my right shoulder along my shoulder blade. This indicates cervical nerve 5 involvement affecting the dorsal scapular nerve innervating my rhomboid muscles along the medial border of my scapula.

Thinking back on the exercises I was doing with my trainer, I figured out what had flared this issue. For several months, I had been doing hanging leg lifts, putting all of my weight on my shoulders using straps. I wasn’t just doing a few. I was doing three sets of 30 lifting my legs to the center, then right, then left. One of my employees was a personal trainer, 26 years old, and when I told her what I was doing she didn’t believe me. So I took her down the sidewalk to the gym and showed her. I did this part of my routine 5 times a week for about 7 months before it got to me. Here’s what it looks like:

Not only did my right shoulder ache, I was having shooting pains down my right arm along the ulnar nerve distribution. My brachioradialis muscle as well as my 4th and 5th fingers were on fire. I also had numbness in those fingers and part of my palm. Not good for a surgeon. My doctor put me on Lortab and referred me to a neurosurgeon, who was a friend of mine.

The neurosurgeon offered to put plates in my neck but told me I wouldn’t be able to rotate my head. Forever. Despite offering this surgery, in all honesty he told me “I wouldn’t do it if I were you, and this is how I make a living”. There was a “foam” type of placement placed by injection he talked about. However, it was only FDA approved for one level and I had three. The surgeon told me he had surgical friends in Germany that could inject three levels all at once and I would be fully functional within 2-3 weeks. Including being able to rotate my head. Following that visit, I consulted an orthopedic surgeon who told me he wouldn’t have surgery either. He recommended I do physical therapy, medical massage, and see a chiropractor. So that’s what I did for the next 6 weeks.

I had a chiropractor to whom I referred patients on a regular basis. I saw him and had adjustments twice weekly. My first PT visit was with a therapist to whom I also referred patients. I had never met her until that first visit and she was so petite I was sure there was no way she could help me. I asked her, “As small as you are, will this be effective?” In no uncertain terms, she told me to lie face down and proceeded to dig her knee and elbow into the space to the left of my scapula. She also dug into my brachioradialis muscle which sent pain and numbness down along my ulnar nerve pathway. As John Mellencamp sang, it “hurt so good”. I saw her three times a week for 6 weeks.

I also had a medical massage once weekly. With all that, at the 4th week, I required no pain medications and the last 2 weeks were done for muscle memory. The PT had determined that I had weakness in my rhomboid major muscle so she taped my shoulder blade back for the first two weeks. She also taught me rhomboid strengthening exercises that I still do to this day.

I still have occasional flares on the right side but nothing as severe as I had in 2011. However, two months ago, I began having the same type of symptoms on the left side albeit not as bad. So I’ve headed down the same path I did 12 years ago. My chiropractor postulates that my long standing issue on the right has created muscle memory that has shifted the subluxation and strain in my neck now to the left.

So I’m back down the rabbit hole once again to avoid placement of needles and metal plates in my neck. Wish me luck!

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