Allison’s Story: Ignoring chronic pain doesn’t help, but surgery can

AllisonAt first, Allison Campbell thought it was just a pinched nerve or stiff neck. Her pain wasn’t that bad. And the soreness would go away as the day passed. But the pain continued.

“I went through a lot of excuses, like it must be my pillow or mattress,” says Allison, 32, of Mason. “I was just avoiding seeing the doctor.”

Then one morning she woke to excruciating pain in her neck and her right arm was numb. “At that point, things go through your mind – what’s going on with my body? I’m a mother of a 10-year-old daughter. This can’t be happening.”

Ian Rodway, MD, a spine surgeon at West Chester Hospital, first treated Campbell with steroids, which relieved the pain. Dr. Rodway says Allison’s initial treatment was typical in that back and spinal problems are almost always treated first with medication.

“We initially treat with oral steroids, muscle relaxants, physical therapy and sometimes epidural steroid injections to calm down those pinched nerves,” Dr. Rodway says. He believes the discussion about whether to undergo surgery should not take place until all other treatments have failed and a patient is unable to live with the problem.

“We also must consider whether there is significant weakness and numbness that will contribute to permanent loss,” he says. “When conservative methods fail, surgery is an option.”

That was the case with Allison, a teacher at Blue Ash Elementary. Her numbness had grown worse and extended to her arm. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan showed Allison had what’s known as a bulging or extruded disc in the cervical spine in her neck. The disc can bulge or sometimes tear through its outer shell and push into the spinal canal causing compression of the nerves and the spinal cord.

“When they discovered it, they wondered how I could be walking around and functioning. I guess I have a high tolerance for pain,” Allison says. “At first, I put off surgery because of my job. Then the excruciating pain returned and I couldn’t lie down. I was seen very quickly and my pain was addressed.”

Dr. Rodway performed what is commonly called a spinal fusion to the involved cervical vertebrae. Surgeons use a bone graft that acts as a bridge between the two vertebrae, allowing the spinal fusion. Metal plates and screws are used to hold the bone graft and vertebrae together until the bone grows across the graft.

“Technically, it’s called an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion,” Dr. Rodway says. “It relieves the pressure from the nerve. Often, with these surgeries, you can return to normal activities without restrictions.”

“As much as I do not like being poked and prodded with needles, that was the only hard part,” she says. “Everyone at West Chester Hospital was kind and professional. They catered to everything and anything I needed.”

Allison has successfully resumed her active life that includes a busy schedule as a wife, mom, teacher and runner since the surgery in September. “I’m a very physical person, an avid runner, and wave and snow boarder,” she said. “The first four weeks of recovery I had to stick to walking and the elliptical. After six weeks I could start running. I started slow.”

It’s not always clear what causes herniated discs, though genetics and activities are thought to play a major role . In Allison’s case, she could recall no single incident where she injured her neck. Doctors know the problems are more common when there is a family history. Being overweight or lack of exercise can also weaken muscles making it easier for a bulging disc to develop. In most cases, pain can lessen in a few weeks with minimal treatment and surgery remains the exception.

Allison is pleased that surgery was a successful solution for her and she has no complaints. “I’ve been able to get back to my normal level of activity as if nothing had happened.”

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