Steve’s story: pinched nerve in the cervical spine

Steve cannot point to any specific incident that caused the problems with his neck. He did not fall or have an accident. He did not play any intense, contact sports as a youth. And he does not climb ladders, dig trenches, or lift boulders for a living. A manager at a distribution center, he spends about 90 percent of his time sitting at his desk in front of a computer. The remainder of the time he spends walking around, overseeing the center’s operations.

Nevertheless, several years ago Steve began to experience pain in his left arm, neck, and back, along with tingling in his fingers. Steve saw an orthopedist, who diagnosed a herniated disc at the C 6-7 level in Steve’s cervical spine, or neck. The disc, which had degenerated with age, was pushing out from between the two vertebrae and was compressing nerves in Steve’s neck, causing pain and the unsettling tingling sensations.

Steve coped with his problem until 2012, when the pain began to escalate and move to the other side of his back and arm. Steve had a series of three epidural steroid injections, which helped alleviate the pain in his back but were less effective at stopping the pain in his neck and arm.

“There was a lot of discomfort,” Steve recalls. “It was very annoying. It was hard to think, hard to concentrate. I had to keep moving. Driving was very painful.”

Steve was referred to Brad Curt, MD, a neurosurgeon with the Mayfield Brain & Spine, who advised him that his best option for relief was a procedure known as an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, or ACDF. During the procedure, Dr. Curt would make a small incision in the front of Steve’s neck and remove the disc that was causing Steve’s problems. Dr. Curt would then place a bone graft into the empty disc space. Over time, the graft would fuse to the vertebrae above and below it, providing stability and normal spine alignment.

“Steve's symptoms were the result of neural compression, a pinched nerve in his neck,” Dr. Curt says. “This is a common problem that responds well to direct surgical decompression when non-surgical treatments fail. This type of operation is very rewarding for both patient and physician because once the pressure is off the nerve, the pain dissipates and life can get back to normal.”

Steve had never heard of an ACDF, and he had never heard of a procedure in which a doctor repairs a disc by making an incision in the “anterior” of the neck, meaning the throat. “Hearing about it was something of a shock, but it didn’t worry me,” Steve says. “I had confidence in what Dr. Curt does.”

The procedure would be done at The Mayfield Spine Surgery Center and Steve would go home the same day.

Steve was anxious when he arrived at the Spine Surgery Center at 7 a.m. But after getting settled in his pre-operative room, he immediately felt relaxed. “Once they called me into the room, I had a comfort level with everything,” Steve says. “Someone was there to explain everything that would be done. They were there every step of the way, answering any questions I had. They were not in any hurry to run out of the room. They were very patient.”

Dr. Curt performed the procedure without a hitch, and Steve was back home by 1 p.m., only six hours after he had arrived for surgery.

Steve took a week and a half off from work, then returned, taking care not to slip or make any jerky movements. He had six formal sessions of physical therapy and continued to perform exercises – some with elastic exercise bands – at home. A lifting restriction would continue for several months, easing gradually as time went by. “I can resume normal activities as long as I don’t do anything crazy,” Steve says, three months after the procedure. “Dr. Curt does not want me to do any bungee-jumping.”

The fusion of bone in Steve’s neck took about a year to heal. But the pain that made surgery necessary is gone. “I highly recommend Dr. Curt and his Mayfield colleagues at the Spine Surgery Center,” Steve says. “The reasons I went into surgery are completely gone. I am grateful for the surgery, and if I had it to do over, I would have it done again.”