When Rob's neck started to ache, the 40-year-old insurance executive thought it was just a normal part of the aging process for someone as active as he was. "I was playing softball, working out four to five times a week and coaching my son's baseball team," he says. "I thought maybe I was just getting older and trying to do too much."
When his mild ache turned into acute neck pain and numbness that radiated down through his right shoulder, he went to see his family doctor, who, knowing how active Rob was, agreed his symptoms were most likely the result of stress and physical overexertion.
Over the next few months, Rob followed his doctor's advice to rest, and tried both prescription and over-the-counter pain relievers. When these non-surgical measures failed to help, he tried physical therapy and chiropractic care. "Both made me feel better for a little while," he says, "but, because of my experience in the insurance business, I realized that what I was doing was simply pain management. It wasn't actually helping my condition, just helping me deal with it."
Rob continued to manage his neck pain conservatively for more than a year. By this time, the severe pain and numbness in his neck and shoulders extended into his right forearm and wrist. Rob tried to keep up with his workout and sports schedule as much as possible, but found that dealing with his neck pain left him with little energy to spare.
"It got to where all I wanted to do when I came home from work was lie down," Rob recalls. "At first, I couldn't put it together that it was because of all the pain and other problems. Usually, if something hurts, it hurts just right there and then gets better and you're fine. But this was different, and it affected the way I handled myself on a daily basis.
"I stopped the coaching and quit playing softball, and I worked out less because it took all I had just to get through a day at work. I just didn't have anything left to give."
One afternoon when Rob was lifting weights in the gym, a new symptom emerged that made him decide it was time to get more aggressive about identifying and treating the cause of his problems instead of just masking it.
"Right in the middle of a bench press, I noticed I was having trouble getting that right side up, even though I'm right-hand dominant," Rob says. "My pain and numbness was now manifesting as weakness, so I knew I needed to do something different. That's when I went back to my doctor and requested a referral to a neurosurgeon."
Rob was referred to Dr. Joseph Stachniak of the Texas Brain and Spine Institute in Plano, Texas. A physical exam and diagnostic magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed the cause of Rob's problems: a herniated disc between his C6 and C7 cervical vertebrae. This is a condition in which the inner core of the disc bulges out through a tear in the disc. If the disc material presses on a spinal nerve, it can cause pain, numbness, and weakness, both in the neck and other parts of the body.
Rob knew spinal fusion was a common treatment for a condition like his, but he was not interested in this type of spine surgery. "I wasn't interested in fusion," he admits. "I'd also done some research into spine surgery on my own and found that fusion could limit my range of motion and also end up putting more stress on the surrounding vertebrae. If that was my only option, I was just going to go back to the chiropractor and manage the pain as best I could."
Dr. Stachniak, however, offered him another alternative: replacing the damaged disc in his neck with the Prestige® Cervical Disc, an artificial disc with a "ball and trough" that was designed to maintain motion at the treated vertebral levels. After learning more about the technology and the procedure involved, a type of spine surgery called cervical artificial disc replacement, Rob felt confident the Prestige Disc was the right choice for him. "I'd read about artificial discs and knew they had been used in other parts of the world for some time. I felt emboldened by this knowledge, and my attitude at that point changed to 'Let's get it done.'"
"People would ask me if I was nervous, but I wasn't because this could be the beginning of the end of everything I'd been going through."
To replace Rob's damaged intervertebral disc, Dr. Stachniak made a small incision in the front of Rob's neck and created a narrow opening through the muscles for access to the cervical vertebrae. He then removed the disc material through the opening, inserted the cervical disc implant and closed the incision. The minimally invasive procedure was performed under general anaesthesia, and Rob was released from the hospital the day after his procedure.
Rob's artificial disc replacement surgery took place on a Friday, and he was cleared to return to work after a week of recovery at home. As for exercising, Dr. Stachniak advised him to stop for a few weeks to give the surgical site a chance to stabilize. "I was kind of uncomfortable for a couple of days, but after the first 72 hours there were few limitations."
Rob's numbness also disappeared and he was surprised at how quickly he regained his muscle strength. "Before my artificial disc replacement, Dr. Stachniak had me make two fists and hold them out in front of me, and told me to resist when he tried to push them down. I could resist on the left side but not on my right. He did this again after I regained consciousness after surgery. This time, he couldn't push my right hand down."
Today, Rob is back to working out almost every day and also plays on an adult-league baseball team. "I don't feel like there's one thing I can't do," he says. "And I felt that way almost immediately after my surgery. As for the incision, all I have is a tiny little scar, but it blends in with the natural lines of my neck."
As for any lingering effects of his pre-surgery disc and nerve damage, Rob says the only thing he ever notices is that he occasionally experiences some slight weakness in his right arm. "I waited so long to have this done, some of that nerve function may never come back," he says. "And it only happens under times of really intense fatigue, like at the very end of a workout.
"Overall, things are just so much better now. Am I glad I had spine surgery? Absolutely. It's given me back my life, and allowed me to hit the ground running again. It's like the neck pain was never there."
This story reflects one person's experience. Not every person will receive the same results. Talk to your doctor about your treatment options.