Exactly one year ago I had a double diskectomy, two spinal fusions using cadaver bone, the reduction of several spinal spurs and a reduction of a spinal cyst. In this surgery they put you to sleep and access your spine through your throat (C-5 and C-6 vertebrae) and use cadaver bone in replacement of the disks then they screw everything together using titanium plates and screws. I have had several people ask how its been since the surgery, was it worth it, and I have found this is an increasingly common surgery so folks are legitimately curious since almost everyone it seems knows someone contemplating the surgery so here is my take.
In my case I have always been athletic and adventurous and most of my life has been extremely active physically. I spent the majority of my adult life the military with most of that as an Infantryman and the cumulative physical effects from that lifestyle is what I attribute my spinal troubles. For years prior to my surgery I experienced back pain and an increasingly frequent severe pain and burning that extended from between my shoulder blades in a radial pattern down my right arm and into my right hand. It would last sometimes for a month or two and then get better and I would resume my previous active life until the next bout of pain and burning but over the years the pain became almost constant and I started to lose feeling in my right arm. Then several years ago I started having numbness in my right leg and foot and right before my surgery I had a severe limp and often had to use a cane...you can imagine that depression and I became acquainted. By the time I had my surgery I had been injected with steroids, poked, prodded, been misdiagnosed several times, pumped full of pain killers, and in addition, I had 4 major surgeries (unrelated to the spinal issue) since my return from Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007 and I was sick of doctors, sick of pain, and generally feeling sorry for myself. I relate all this because so many people I talk to who are having similar issues with their back go through similar sequences of events and no one should feel unique in that regard.
So after all that blather above...was it worth it? I would have to say a qualified yes. The anticipation of the surgery and the knowledge that if something went wrong I could be paralyzed from the neck down for life was way worse than the actual surgery but for me the recovery was neither as quick or as easy as it was sometimes advertised. I had to wear a neck brace and not move my head for a month which was very difficult and I had a considerable amount of painful discomfort. In fact several weeks after the surgery I wasn't feeling better at all and was actually feeling worse when it dawned on me that I had been prescribed some serious pain killers that I was taking but didn't seem to do much other than make me a zombie. So I quit all medication period and within a few days started feeling much better. I also suffered from dizziness and instability when standing (like getting out of bed) for months afterward which was apparently caused from the neck brace keeping the head still for so long (I guess its common but I was never warned about it and it was concerning) and for awhile I didn't feel like my neck was very strong. Overall for me the surgery was necessary and I am glad its over. I was warned that eventually I would be in a wheel chair and possibly lose bowel and bladder control as more of my spinal cord was impacted if I did nothing....imagine contemplating that.
Now a year later I still have back pain though not nearly as bad and I still get some numbness in my right arm. Most of the time you cant tell I have had any vertebrae fusion by my movements but I have mobility impairments when looking up or down at high angles and I tend to move my neck slowly. I work around it but its been really noticeable when I have been working under vehicles and trying to look up or when I have been in crawl spaces or working on electrical wiring over my head; it doesn't help that I wear progressive lens tri-focals that require you to look through a certain part of the lens to focus.
So what about the future? I still have severe spinal stenosis and degenerative disk disease and plenty of surgeons willing to fuse more of my spine but I am done with more spinal surgery. I have also been recommended to have one shoulder replaced (I had a severe shoulder injury that time has not healed or improved but I can live with) and both knees but again; I am done with surgeries for the foreseable future and I actually feel pretty good.
Should you do it? Spinal surgery is a tough decision, for me I was in so much pain and was so numb that my quality of life was severely diminished and there was no prospect of improvement due to the nature of my problem and its severity. I had a top notch neurosurgeon with lots of experience but you need to understand that there are other options that may work for some people and you are basically just a number and potential revenue source for the surgeon and hospital. I have no doubt what so ever that my surgeon was a most ethical and professional practitioner and I have no issue with his conduct or performance; but its your body and you need to understand the reality that you are basically a consumer being sold a product so be an educated consumer. Cost wise, I ended up with about 56K of billing of which we paid close to 4 K after insurance did its thing. I could have had the surgery basically free at a VA hospital but chose not to for a number of reasons that I wont go into here. Those are personal decisions each person has to make.
So there you have it good, bad and ugly. I think all of us look back and recognize we should have taken better care of ourselves and I am no different but its hard to have too many regrets when I have had such a great life. I would encourage anyone contemplating the surgery to thoroughly evaluate everything before they make a decision and my tale is just one mans experience, others who have had identical surgeries may have differing experiences and recommendations. My final thought is that due to the selflessness and generosity of someone and their family I was able to receive cadaver bone that has benefited me greatly and I think of that often. I don't know if the person was black or white, male or female, straight or gay or anything else and I could care less; all I know is that they cared enough for their fellow man to allow themselves to be a donor and I strongly support donor programs.