What a Drag it is Getting Old

Just about two years ago I was training for my first sprint triathlon. I was in really good physical shape and was super excited to take on a new challenge. During my training, I developed a stiff neck presumably from swimming. I started to have mild pins and needles in both hands. This freaked me out a little bit, so I went to see an orthopedist to get checked out. After trying anti-inflammatory medication, she sent me for an MRI. I found out that I have some fairly significant disc damage at multiple levels of my cervical spine. However, the doctor was fairly clear that surgery would not be necessary. She suggested resting until my symptoms subsided and then I could resume my normal physical activities. I stopped training for the triathlon and rested as prescribed. It was a bit frustrating, but not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

Over the last two years, I have remained active. I have lifted weights, run, and played baseball. I haven’t had any symptoms to speak of. I rarely thought about my degenerative disc disease. Just over one month ago, I started to notice some stiffness in my right hand and wrist. It was pretty mild, but I suspected that it was related to my neck. I decided to schedule an appointment with a spinal specialist to confirm that my symptoms are related to my neck injury. Well, I was in for a bit of a surprise. The doctor said that he would have done surgery on my neck two years ago. Nevertheless, he prescribed a new MRI and reserved final judgment until seeing the new pictures. The new MRI showed no improvement and he reiterated his recommendation that I proceed with anterior cervical discectomy and fusion or ACDF surgery expressly because my spinal cord is significantly compressed at two cervical levels, C5-C6 and C6-C7. This has created weakness in my left triceps that may not be able to be recovered. Let me be clear. I am not in pain. I have never actually been in pain as a result of this condition. Apparently, that is not uncommon. Pain is not a prerequisite for surgery, but weakness is.

Obviously, it’s not my first choice to have a major surgery that involves manipulating my spinal cord. However, I have received two medical opinions that surgery is necessary given my condition. So what am I going to do? I’ve already scheduled the surgery because this is something that I need to deal with. I will need surgery eventually and there is no sense kicking the can down the road. My primary doctor has confirmed I am in great physical health. I am pretty fit and strong. These things are not guaranteed five or ten years from now if I wait to have the surgery. Further, I want to live without physical restrictions. I have been told that I will have no physical restrictions if the surgery and my recovery are both successful. This is extremely appealing to me.

The main reason not to have the surgery is simply fear. I can go through every possible “what if” scenario. I could envision all sorts of really bad outcomes, but the fact is that the highest probability outcome is an uneventful surgery that results in an improved quality of life. For someone who struggles with anxiety, it would be easy to get overwhelmed by fear. However, I am not going to let that happen. My quality of life is very dependent on my ability to exercise without restriction. I believe this surgery will allow me to do that for the rest of my life, so I’m going to take a calculated risk. I’m looking forward to facing the surgery and moving forward.

It is becoming clearer to me that these are the types of issues that I’m going to have to deal with as I get older. It will likely get worse before it gets better and that’s okay. It’s all part of the learning process.

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