These two men, both active athletes, were experiencing intense pain due to cervical disc problems. Both chose to have neck surgery after trying other pain management options. Here they answer some of the most common questions patients have about what it’s like to have neck surgery and get back to their daily activities.

Mark, a neck surgery patient
Doug, a neck surgery patient
  1. What were your symptoms prior to surgery?

    Mark: I experienced a lot of spasticity and pain in my neck and trapezoids, as well as numbness in my hand.

    Doug: [I had] intense pain in my left arm. With MRI and other tests, I discovered that I had a disc issue. I really think I could have lived with the neck pain, but the arm was killing me and was rapidly becoming useless. The neurosurgeon tested how much strength I had lost, even in the [approximate] four months since the onset of symptoms, and he was pretty alarmed. He speculated that I had lost 90% of the use of my arm in those few weeks.

  2. What treatments did you try before surgery?

    Mark: I first tried massage and chiropractic. The chiropractor put me on a disc decompression machine. My neck felt good for 30 minutes, but started to hurt again after that. I also tried physical therapy which didn't work. Epidural injections temporarily worked to ease the pain, but wore off between three and six months.

    Doug: [I tried] standard conservative treatment. Physical therapy, [several kinds of prescription] painkillers and I had two cortisone shots. Neither of the latter shots did much; one of them wore off before I was out of the parking lot where the doctor’s office was.

  3. How and why did you choose to have artificial disc replacement surgery?

    Mark: I was very active in cycling, rock climbing, and wakeboarding. I knew if I had a fusion, I would eventually need surgery on the adjacent discs. Luckily, I found a clinical trial for multi-level artificial disc replacement.

    Doug: I spoke first to orthopedic surgeons, and their default setting was for spinal fusion. I was very concerned about fusion because of a childhood memory of a friend of my folks who had had a horrible experience with that procedure. In addition, my research told me about (1) healing and convalescence time, and (2) loss of mobility/range of motion. I had no interest in curtailing my lifestyle, so we “shopped around” with the teaching hospitals in Chicago, and discovered that there was an alternative.

    The Medtronic device was relatively newly approved by FDA (this was January 2010), and I was deemed to be “a pretty good candidate” for artificial disc replacement. It addressed each of my concerns about fusion, so I went with it.

  4. Was your surgery done as an outpatient?

    Mark: I was in a clinical trial, so I had to spend the night in the hospital. If given the choice, I would stay in the hospital again. I didn't have to cook or make my bed there like I do at home.

    Doug: It was [outpatient surgery]. I had been told prior to the procedure that I should plan to be in the hospital for “a night or two,” but was apparently enough of a recovery room superstar that they sent me home that afternoon. It was an unexpected lift to know that I could sleep in my own bed.

  5. How were your symptoms after surgery? Immediate relief? Any pain?

    Mark: I was still in pain after surgery, but not any more pain than I was experiencing before. As my neck healed, the pain went away. It probably took six months to feel normal again.

    Doug: I was aware, even just waking up from surgery while I was in the recovery room, that my arm didn’t hurt any more. I was flabbergasted. My throat was sore, and I felt a little banged up, but the worst symptom I’d had — the arm pain — was gone.

  6. How was your recovery after surgery?

    Mark: I was told not to lift anything heavier than a soup can for a week. After that, I slowly started to feel comfortable lifting heavier items until I started to get back in the gym after six weeks.

    Doug: Frankly, unbelievable. As I said above, I had been on some very heavy painkillers. I had the surgery on a Monday morning, and took my last pain pill on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. By Friday, I had a pretty full day of meetings and conference calls.

  7. Were you prescribed physical therapy or wear a neck brace?

    Mark: I didn't have to do physical therapy or wear a neck brace.

    Doug: Physical therapy, yes. I started with a PT within ten days or two weeks [after] surgery, and I am so glad that I did. Of course, it helped with range of motion, regaining strength and other concerns, but it also helped with my confidence that I could really come back to normal. Within a month or so, I had full range of motion back in my neck. I recommend to everyone that they follow the PT path.

    Neck brace, no. I was never offered or suggested one, and it didn’t occur to me to ask.

  8. How soon did you return to “normal” activities?

    Mark: I didn't go to work for ten days. Once I started to work, I slowly added activities to see if I felt comfortable doing them. It was probably two months before I got back on my bicycle.

    Doug: I was given clearance by my neurosurgeon to start swimming again after six weeks. (He’d said, “Pools are filled with bacteria. Could you at least wait until the incision is healed?” That was six weeks.) Ten weeks after that, I was in a 10K (swimming) race in a lake near Indianapolis. Later that summer, I swam eight miles across Boston Harbor (in 53-degree water!) and completed a six-hour cold-water qualifying swim for the English Channel. It was August of the following year that I actually swam it.

  9. Can you do things now that you couldn’t do prior to surgery?

    Mark: I still do the same things. I just do them without pain. I don't have any limitations now.

    Doug: Live without pain. It is that simple.

  10. Based on your recovery would you have the surgery again?

    Mark: I would definitely have the surgery again. I haven't had any issues with the current implants (even after having several bad bike accidents).

    Doug: Without hesitation. I am now 11 years post-op (I had it when I was 52 years old). Since then, I train for swimming and have completed probably a dozen marathon-distance swims. I dig in the garden and do some pretty heavy yardwork and home projects, and I am quite literally never aware that I have this device in my neck.