How Anterior Cervical Disk Fusion Surgery Improved My Life
Why I Needed Anterior Cervical Disk Fusion Surgery
For my 50th birthday, I gave myself the gift of improved mobility and less pain. I've lived with intense neck pain since being thrown from a horse in 1997 and a few car accidents. My most profound regret is having waited so long to have this surgery. My life has improved immeasurably as a result of Anterior Cervical Disk Fusion Surgery.
ACDF is Used to Correct Narrowing, Compression, Herniation, and Radiculopathy of the Cervical Spine
An MRI is used to make the final diagnosis and confirm the need for surgery. Once under general anesthesia, a 1-2 inch incision is made in the front of the neck. The damaged disks are removed and replaced by a neuro or orthopedic surgeon. (or in my case, a team consisting of both) Various materials (mine a special glue comprised of finely ground cadaver bone; allograft), allow regeneration and formation of new bone. The process completes the fusion and makes it stable along with interbody spacers. The vertebrae are held together with cages and screws, like the model shown below and in my x-ray images.
I arrived at 5:00 a.m. to the surgery center, prepared for a four-hour procedure. Two surgeons worked together as a team, with the orthopedic surgeon operating on the bones and the neurosurgeon repairing the damaged nerves. I suffered from narrowing (stenosis), disk degeneration of C 4-5-6, radiculopathy (compressed nerve roots), and bone spurs.
The surgeon said if I didn't proceed with the surgery, there was a possibility I could become paralyzed if ever severe collision or accident. The choice to continue was a no-brainer, and I'd be able to return to most, if not all, of my activities in 6-12 months. (marathon running, backpacking, yoga)
My Recovery Experience
Post-op day #1-2
I only stayed in the hospital one night until my vital signs stabilized, and I was able to walk the halls without assistance and manage in the bathroom. Day two was challenging, and the pain medication prescribed essentially worthless. I had a terrible feeling of a large ball lodged in my throat, and Swallowing (dysphagia) was a total nightmare from the time I woke up from surgery.
I lived on fruit pops, ginger ale, water, smoothies, shakes, soup, tea, and coffee, for several days, and even that was all hard to swallow. A friend juiced organic carrots for a natural laxative "aka poop juice" as she called it since general anesthesia is known to put a halt to the gastrointestinal system. In my case, it did for two weeks!
Ice packs and walks were terrific for short term relief to take the edge off. The surgical site and spinal bones felt only somewhat sore, so it was mainly my trachea that caused most of the pain and difficulty swallowing.
Post-op Day #4
I still had much difficulty getting solids down due to my swollen trachea and esophagus, and was honestly unsure which was the culprit; maybe both? I made some turkey noodle soup to step up my game a bit.
My Blinged Out Neck Brace Ready For ActionClick thumbnail to view full-size
Post-op Day #5
By day #5, I was on my own as my husband went back to work. The pain hadn't subsided much, and the lumpy, painful throat was the worst part of the whole ordeal. It felt like razor blades in my throat. I was in a brain fog going from taking no medications most of my life to 2-3 different medications in one week. I started spacing the pain medication out for longer intervals, and the neck brace seemed to exacerbate the pain. I was advised to wear the brace during all waking hours and could have it off for sleeping.
Post-op day #6
The fun kept coming. I woke up abruptly at 11:30 that night with a choking feeling as if my tongue had swollen. I also had no sense of taste. It took me a while to realize I was breathing fine and not having an allergic reaction to something. I finally settled down and went back to sleep.
By this point, I was getting around great, my appetite was back to normal, and I had a great visit with a friend for a few hours, which included a beautiful, big latte' from the local coffee shop. It's incredible how much a visit and a treat can lift one's spirits.
I got my first look at my incision with the steri-strips off that morning, and it didn't look so good. My nursing expertise told me right away it looked infected, so I called my surgeon's office, and they called in a prescription for antibiotics to be on the safe side.
Post-op Day #7
I got out and walked two miles today, a huge victory for being one week out.
Post-op Day #8
Today I started thinking about my marathon running and how maybe one day soon, I could train hard again! I felt good, swallowed without pain, and felt healing was finally taking place.
Progress During Week #2Click thumbnail to view full-size
Post-op day #12
It was so pretty outside for a late November day. I'd been taking a daily walk or two ever since the day after surgery, despite how terrible I felt a few of those days. Being unable to drive was a pain, although I knew it would be a bad idea since I couldn't move my neck yet, and still needed to wear the brace. I inspected my manicure and being that my nail studio is a 1.5-mile walk from my house, I decided to walk there and back on foot. There's nothing like a good manicure to make a girl feel happy!
After my nail appointment, I met one of my running friends for a brisk seven-mile walk. I wasn't even two weeks post-op and felt like I could've done more!
Post-op day #18
I went back to yoga for the last two days! (I hitched a ride from a fellow yogi as I'm still not allowed to drive). I took it very easy, wore my brace, modified every move, and didn't do anything with an inversion or twist. It felt so good to get my muscles loosened up.
Post-op day #20
I had my first surgical post-op visit at the three-week mark, which should've been after two weeks, but my surgeon canceled due to a personal emergency. I felt like this was way too long to wait for a post-op visit, so I just listened to my body, pushed where I felt I could, and rested afterward. I wasn't going to waste a second of what could've been a whole week of being allowed to start adding my activities back in!
I also went back to my nursing "desk job" at the end of the second week before having my follow-up appointment, which we determined over the phone. I had a friend or my husband drive me since I wasn't cleared to drive. I got a little achy towards the end of the shift from sitting so long, but it went better than I'd anticipated.
While at the surgeon's office, I got scolded for asking to go back to yoga (not admitting I had been to two classes already) and since he "threw me a bone" allowing me to go back to work at two weeks, he said, "absolutely no yoga for two months"! Not even modified, easy yoga. He said if I mess up the hardware, he will go in from the back and put in rods, and then I really won't be happy with the recovery. I got the green light to drive, so a small victory there.
I set up physical therapy visits to start around the 30-day post-op mark. I was getting tired of holding my neck stiff and still, so I looked forward to the therapy. The surgeon said I could walk as much as I wanted, but still not allowed to use the stationary bike. I didn't mean to be a difficult patient, but I knew this was going to be the hardest part of my recovery because I am a very active woman.
The Success of Anterior Cervical Disk Fusion Surgery
So far, my hip pain is gone and has been since the surgery. I'm hoping the removal of the bone spurs that compressed specific nerves cured that too. My neck feels less constricted and less painful in the areas I had suffered for nearly 20 years. My surgeon said it was very tight from the stenosis, which they fixed with the disk removal/replacement and cages.
Once the post-operative discomfort subsided, I did physical therapy sessions to start moving my neck. I wish I hadn't waited so long to have this surgery. I let fear rule over common sense. My quality of life has vastly improved, as has my range of motion. I can now look over my shoulder when driving, which I hadn't been able to do for years. It's nice to not seek alternative therapy visits. (chiropractor, acupuncture) or take muscle relaxers and ibuprofen, which I avoid since I don't like taking medication.
Post-operative Scar at Four Months and Two YearsClick thumbnail to view full-size
I'd love to hear about your Anterior Cervical Disk Fusion experience.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Debra Roberts