Dennis, 2015

“I Got My Life Back”

“At six months out, I was back to weight training, running, and riding. I plan to run another series of Tough Mudder and OCR races this summer with my son and daughter.”

I had been diagnosed with cervical spine issues when I was in my late 20s. An MRI showed degeneration and stenosis from C5 through C7. Initial symptoms were pain and a loss of range of motion in my neck. Over time, that pain became worse, radiating into my back and upper arms. In May 2014, I became more symptomatic and began to notice pain in my forearms along with a loss of sensation and motor skills in my hands.

I am an athlete, and my training routine would include things to maintain strength and flexibility. But as my issue was structural, there was only so much I could do. The pain was persistent, and it affected my activities; I simply learned to cope. I would have periods where the pain would become bad enough to lay me up for a couple days, and as I got into my late 30s and 40s, it gradually started affecting more of my day-to-day activities.

I was a middleweight boxer who transitioned into mixed martial arts. In my late 20s, I transitioned out of contact sports and got into cycling and running. I raced with local clubs and shops, competing in regional and national series mountain bike races and have done several 6-, 12-, and 24-hour races. I still ride, but now I include more running as part of my training regimen. I love playing in the dirt, and over the past few years I have competed in several Obstacle Course Races (OCRs), or mud runs.

For the most part, I was able to keep my symptoms in check but would have flare-ups from time to time. Limited range of motion and neck stiffness would affect me on the bike. Sometimes weight training or running would bring on flare-ups in my neck, upper back, and arms. These symptoms would result in my activities being cut short or not happening at all.

In the summer of 2014, I started noticing pain in my forearms. My typical symptoms also became more pronounced and frequent. I started to notice a loss of sensation, motor function, and strength in my hands. I began to have issues doing simple things like holding a cup, using utensils, or doing anything that required fine motor skills. My fingers would feel like they were not attached or slow to respond to the things I wanted them to do. I would completely lose grip when picking up a heavy object or doing pull-ups. Eventually my left hand would either just give out or spasm, and I began noticing similar issues in my legs.

My symptoms gradually progressed from when I was in my early 20s until now (over the course of about 30 years). I sought treatment at different times throughout that period. Some doctors recommended surgery, but at the time that meant a complete fusion and giving up all of the activities that I enjoyed. So I did everything I could to avoid surgery. My treatments ranged from medication, chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, physical therapy, simple stretching, and range of motion activities. They provided temporary relief. I knew surgery would have to happen
eventually. However, my level of fitness helped in keeping the symptoms in check for the most part. I was able to put off surgery up until July 2014.

In the summer of 2014, I started to develop pain in my forearms and noticed atrophy along with a severe loss of strength in my arms and hands. My fine motor skills were becoming more and more affected which led me to begin actively seeking some long-term medical solutions. I started my research, looking for top-rated doctors who specialized in the field of spine surgery—
specifically for athletes.

In June I competed in a Tough Mudder, doing back-to-back events Saturday and Sunday, 13 miles of mud and obstacles each day. In early July, something triggered a massive onset of symptoms. The nerves in my cervical spine became more entrapped, and my pain became constant and severe. Along with this new onslaught of pain, the right side of my body basically began to completely shut down. My arms and right leg were becoming weak, and motor function was impaired. By mid-July, I was bed-ridden.

I spoke to several specialists, and there was no doubt that I required surgery. I remember having a very negative outlook on this type of surgery. I was dreading it, but I knew that it was something I had to do at this point. To be honest I was outright scared in regard to how it would affect my quality of life and the activities I enjoyed doing.

Upon meeting the team at Virginia Spine Institute (VSI), I knew I had found my solution. They invested a significant amount of time making sure I was properly diagnosed, educated on my situation, and that I understood my options. Most of my fears were addressed and were replaced with facts and an understanding of the latest procedures available to people with my issues.

We were working through these options when my symptoms escalated. Everyone at VSI worked to put my surgery plan together on short-notice. The office staff even worked through issues with my uncooperative insurance carrier to get me into surgery the next day.

I remember waking up in recovery and noticing right away that all the neural pressure and pain were gone. I spent three days in the hospital recovering and instantly began adjusting to being pain-free. My recovery went quickly, and I was back on my feet in no time. After 90 days, I was cleared to begin normal activities with caution. At six months out, I was back to weight training, running, and riding. I plan to run another series of Tough Mudder and OCR races this summer with my son and daughter.

The curvature of my neck is coming back, and with that my posture has changed. I actually have more range of motion now than I did before surgery. Looking down is definitely restricted, but all other range of motion has improved. The pain and most symptoms resulting from my cervical spine issues are gone. The nerves will take a while to heal, and my remaining symptoms are simply a result of nerve healing slower than muscle.

My advice: don’t waste time! Consider surgical options if nothing else provides relief. Even more importantly, if the nerve is damaged and/or impinged upon, it will take a long time to heal and can become irreversible.

I am very happy with the procedure and even more so with the team. I now look forward to my post-operative visits. Everyone I have encountered at VSI is great to work with, a very professional team that really takes pride in and enjoy their work. Without hesitation, I would refer anyone suffering from spine-related issues, especially athletes, to VSI with my highest personal recommendation. Words could never express my gratitude and appreciation towards my medical team. I got my life back and I’m back out there kicking ass, what more can I ask for?

Hear more Spinal Champion® stories from our Journal, Spine-Talks® , or the Get Back To It Podcast.

“At six months out, I was back to weight training, running, and riding. I plan to run another series of Tough Mudder and OCR races this summer with my son and daughter.”