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 in a few car accidents. My most profound regret is having waited so long to have this surgery. My life has improved immeasurably due to 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. at the surgery center and prepared for a four-hour procedure. I suffered from narrowing (stenosis), disk degeneration of C 4-5-6, radiculopathy (compressed nerve roots), and bone spurs. Two surgeons worked together, with the orthopedic surgeon operating on the bones and the neurosurgeon repairing the damaged nerves.
The surgeon said if I didn't proceed with the surgery, there was a possibility I could become paralyzed if there was ever a 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 was essentially worthless. I had a terrible feeling of a giant ball lodged in my throat, and Swallowing (dysphagia) was a total nightmare when I woke up from surgery.
A friend juiced organic carrots for a natural laxative, "aka poop juice," as she called it, since general anesthesia is known to halt the gastrointestinal system. In my case, it did for two weeks! For several days, I lived on fruit pops, ginger ale, water, smoothies, shakes, soup, tea, and coffee, and even that was all hard to swallow.
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 mainly my trachea 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 Action
Post-op Day #5
By day #5, I was on my own as my husband returned 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 brain fog, going from taking no medications most of my life to 2-3 different medicines 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, including a beautiful, big latte' from the local coffee shop. It's incredible how much a visit and a treat can lift one's spirits.
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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 walked two miles today, a significant 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 #2
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. There's nothing like a good manicure to make a girl feel happy! Since my nail studio is a 1.5-mile walk from my house, I decided to walk there and back.
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 too long to wait for a post-op visit, so I listened to my body, pushed where I thought 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 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, the Dr. scolded me for the asking to go back to yoga (not admitting I had been to two classes already), and since he "threw me a bone" and allowed me to return 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 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 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 was still not allowed to use the stationary bike. I didn't mean to be a difficult patient, but I knew this would be the most challenging 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 removing 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 not to 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 Years
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
JC Scull on April 04, 2020:
Debra...Excellent article which I am going to forward to one of my tennis buddies who is having similar problems.
Lyosha on June 28, 2019:
I am so happy for you! Having your condition greatly improved is always wonderful. I am very happy for you!
Thuy on June 28, 2019:
I’m in love with that blinged out neck-brace. Just because you have to recover from surgery doesn’t mean you can’t be stylish too!
Subhashish Roy on June 27, 2019:
Getting into an operation theatre is always so scary. Hope you are doing fine and are back into action. Wish you well.
Live Learn Better on June 27, 2019:
A life in pain is a life in waste. So glad you are able to get this taken care of and doing much better shortly afterwards.
Snehal @ Beauty Tending on June 27, 2019:
A relative of mine is going to get this operation done soon. When she first shared with us I couldn't understand what was it about. Well now I know thanks Deb! Sharing this post with her! :)
Trish on June 25, 2019:
What a difference the surgery will have made in your life. Contemplating surgery is scary but your post will be a fantastic help and comfort to anyone trying to make the same decision.
Erica (The Prepping Wife) on June 25, 2019:
I can only imagine how difficult this was for someone as active as you are, Deb! I'm amazed at how small the scar is from such a complicated surgery. I am always impressed by how much that has improved over the years, and surgeries are becoming less invasive.
Tracy @ Cleland Clan on June 25, 2019:
It’s amazing what doctors are able to do these days. This surgery sounds scary, but you came through it well. Not being able to swallow would definitely have scared me.
Despite Pain on June 25, 2019:
This is a really detailed and informative article about your surgery. You're recovery was pretty amazing. The scar is tiny considering what was done. Hope you're doing well now.
Scott DeNicola on June 25, 2019:
It is so hard for active people to have to relax when they go through surgery as you did. I was reading this thinking Yoga after 18 days is crazy and apparently, it was. :) I'm glad everything worked out and I think most people would have opted for the surgery as you did. People need to read articles like this when they are researching a potential operation or procedure.
Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on January 25, 2019:
Thank you Leland for such kind remarks about my article and for the great question too! My pain level at the end of week one was good in terms of the surgical site; probably a 4-5/10. It was so wonderful to have the pressure and heaviness relieved in my neck and for the numbness and tingling in my arms and hands at night gone as well; and most of that was immediate. I had a good bit of discomfort with swallowing, that was more annoying than it was painful. I had a persistent lump in my throat that made swallowing very uncomfortable. I assume this was from the retractors holding everything to the side during the procedure, as well as having been intubated at the same time. This drove me crazy for the first 1-2 weeks and nothing seemed to relieve it (ice packs, eating lots of popsicles, nsaids). What finally helped was taking Prednisone.
Yes, I am pretty healthy and active, which no doubt helped me bounce back quickly and I was backpacking (with reduced weight in my pack than usual) seven months later and back to all normal activities without restrictions, at one year!
I appreciate the follow as well! Since you are a surgical tech, stay tuned for my next article on my numerous varicose vein surgeries between 1999 and 2018. You will be amazed at how vastly different the procedure is today!
Leland Johnson from Midland MI on January 21, 2019:
Debra: this is an excellent article and you did a great job of presenting your experience in a concise, readable format. In your pics you look as though you’re in perfect health. I was wondering what your pain levels were at the end of week one? I’ve worked as a surg tech for many years, but haven’t had the opportunity to be involved in many anterior fusions. There’s always quite a large team of techs, nurses, and surgeons on these cases. I hope your recovery is full and you life is good. You and your husband look like a great couple. Cheers. Gave you a follow.
Liz Westwood from UK on November 26, 2018:
This is a very useful article for anyone anticipating this kind of surgery. It is a very helpful personal account of your experience.
John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on November 24, 2018:
Thank you for sharing about your surgery, Debra, and the ultimate success of the operation. Like most operations there is discomfort afterwards but it was good that that ultimate outcome was positive for you. A well written and interesting article.