Cervical Spinal Stenosis

What is Cervical Spinal Stenosis?

Cervical spinal stenosis is a degenerative disease that causes a gradual narrowing of the opening for the spinal cord within the neck. The narrowing of the spinal column in the area of the neck, defined as cervical spinal stenosis, can be caused by bulging discs, bone spurs, or an overgrowth of ligaments. Some people are born with cervical spinal stenosis, and it doesn’t rear its ugly head for many years, while others suffer cervical spinal stenosis after years of hard physical labor or sports injuries.

Symptoms of Cervical Spinal Stenosis

Those with cervical spinal stenosis often experience symptoms that range from slight to severe. Cervical spinal stenosis that hasn’t severely compressed the root nerves of the cervical spine may go unnoticed for years. There may be slight symptoms that aren’t bothersome enough to consult a physician, and even if a person with undiagnosed cervical spinal stenosis consults a physician, if the symptoms aren’t advanced, a general practitioner may have no clue as to their cause. The symptoms in the early stages of cervical spinal stenosis points to a number of different problems, and if those symptoms or problems aren’t bothersome enough, they are often ignored and go undiagnosed until they become severe and force a patient to seek emergency treatment.

Symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis are pain, weakness, numbness, and/or tingling in the neck, shoulder, arm(s) and hand(s). Before I knew I had cervical spinal stenosis, the first symptom I noticed was a slight crunching sound when I moved my neck. Before my diagnosis of cervical spinal stenosis I also noticed weakness in my right arm, especially when my arm was outstretched and trying to hold something. Other people noticed my hand shaking when I’d reach for something. I was asked on more than one occasion why my hand was shaking. I didn’t know why, and I certainly would have never guessed that I had cervical spinal stenosis. I thought maybe I had pulled a muscle in my arm or side, and maybe that muscle was weakened by injury. My symptoms certainly weren’t enough to seek medical care.

I did in fact mention my strange symptoms to my doctor when I was in his office for an entirely different problem. He said the problem could be neurological, but he didn’t suggest running tests, and he certainly didn’t mention cervical spinal stenosis. I’ve since realized that unless a patient is having very troublesome symptoms, diseases such as cervical spinal stenosis often go undiagnosed and untreated. In retrospect, all of the symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis were there, but the symptoms weren’t troublesome enough to pursue a cause or treatment.

My Diagnosis

I had never heard of cervical stenosis before I was made aware of the cause of my mysterious symptoms. After waking up one morning with what I thought was a stiff neck, I had no idea that my day would go from bad to worse in a matter of hours. My slightly stiff neck quickly turned into severe pain in my shoulder that worked its way into my arm as the day progressed. By afternoon I was in a doctor’s office seeking emergency care. My arm pain had become severe, and my right hand was extremely numb. I knew I was in trouble, but I had no idea that cervical stenosis was the cause of this intense pain. Before my husband’s vehicle came to a complete stop, I was jumping out and racing into the doctor’s office. I knew I had a serious problem, but what could it be?

The doctor I sought emergency care with had no clue that cervical stenosis was the cause of my unusual symptoms. The doctor hooked me up to an EKG, and although the EKG didn’t indicate heart problems, I was given two sprays of nitroglycerin under my tongue. The doctor was afraid the numbness I was experiencing was caused by a heart attack, and I still had no idea I was having a cervical problem. For all I knew I was having a heart attack. I knew something was seriously wrong, and as I fought off the feeling that I was going to faint, I wondered if I would survive. If a doctor thought I was having a heart attack, my problem must be much greater than something like cervical stenosis.

The feelings of faintness soon passed, and I found myself being carried out of the doctor’s office on a stretcher. I was being rushed to the emergency room of a hospital, and I though maybe I really was having a heart attack. I was very scared, and still I had no idea my mysterious symptoms were caused by cervical stenosis. I had never heard of cervical stenosis let alone ever think that a spinal problem could be causing my symptoms. To my knowledge I hadn’t hurt myself, but later I would find out the form of cervical stenosis I have has been with me my entire life. It just didn’t become apparent until I was in my early thirties.

The doctor at the hospital didn’t think my symptoms had anything to do with my heart. He immediately began ordering x-rays of my neck and spine. When the x-rays didn’t show anything, an MRI was ordered. The MRI revealed I had severely herniated discs. Cervical discs four, five, and six needed repair, and as far as I was concerned this repair could not wait. During this time of uncertainty and pain I was given the highest doses of morphine allowed, and the morphine did not touch the pain I endured. I now know there are some levels of pain that cannot be alleviated by the strongest pain relievers.

The cervical spinal stenosis specialist who accepted me as his patient gave me three options. The first option was to treat the pain with pain killers and put off surgery, the second option was to do nothing and hope the pain went away, and the third option was surgery. Although I didn’t like the idea of surgery, I welcomed the idea since cervical spinal stenosis was the cause of the worst pain I had ever felt in my life.

Two surgical options to correct my cervical spinal stenosis were presented to me. My surgeon could go in through the front at the base of my throat, or he could go in through the back of my neck. Preforming surgery through the front of my neck seemed terrible. He said because of my age I was a good candidate to have cervical spinal stenosis surgery through the back of my neck. My neck would not be made permanently immobile, and my prognosis for recovery was good. I opted for surgery through the back of my neck.

I continued to receive a morphine drip until I was taken into surgery and relieved of the worst of my pain. Recovery took many weeks. I had to wear a cervical collar and rest until my incision healed. The incision was a continuous problem. Although I took very good care of the incision made during my cervical spinal stenosis surgery, because of the location, the incision kept splitting open. It healed, but I now have a very wide scar on the back of my neck. I keep it covered by my long hair.

Living With Cervical Spinal Stenosis

After surgery to correct my cervical spinal stenosis, I took weeks of physical therapy. Cervical spinal stenosis made my right arm and hand weaker than my left, and I couldn’t even pour a gallon of milk long after my surgery. My goal for therapy after surgery for cervical spinal stenosis was to be able to pour a gallon of milk for my kids. I met that goal, and I progressively became stronger as the weeks and months progressed.

I will never be as strong as I once was. Cervical spinal stenosis compromises the muscles after the nerves have been damaged. My right thumb is somewhat numb, but I no longer notice it most of the time. If I lift too much or overexert myself I notice the numbness is greater. Most of the time I’m careful about how much weight I lift and how I lift things. If I lift too much, the muscles surrounding my cervical spine become very sore and I am in pain for days.

I used to feel somewhat sorry for myself when I realized I could no longer do many physical things I used to do before becoming compromised by cervical spinal stenosis. My affliction became very apparent when my weakness kept me from throwing beanbags at a family get-together. Elderly ladies were able to toss beanbags further than I could, and I sat on the side lines watching them have a good time.

I no longer feel sorry for myself for having cervical spinal stenosis. I am now more aware there are many people with medical conditions and disabilities much greater than mine, and many of these people don’t let anything get in their way. Most days I no longer even realize my body has been compromised by cervical spinal stenosis. I have found ways to get around the inconvenience of cervical spinal stenosis, and I don’t consider the results of having cervical spinal stenosis a disability.

The experiences I had while dealing with cervical spinal stenosis has helped me grow as a person. I am more sympathetic to those who are suffering with afflictions, and I’m wiser because of my ordeal with cervical spinal stenosis. Problems with cervical spinal stenosis can resurface and require more surgery, but I don’t spend my days worrying about cervical spinal stenosis problems that may never happen. Worrying about tomorrow will ruin today.

Advice for Anyone Who Thinks They Might Have Cervical Spinal Stenosis

In retrospect I realize my body was trying to tell me something was wrong. Symptoms such as those I experienced before I realized I had cervical spinal stenosis should not have been ignored. If my cervical spinal stenosis had been diagnosed sooner much of my pain could have been avoided. I wouldn’t have suffered with a near fainting spell after receiving nitroglycerin I didn’t need. If I had been diagnosed with cervical stenosis before suffering extreme pain I wouldn’t have worried I was having a heart attack, and my family wouldn’t have suffered as well.

Whether you think you may have cervical spinal stenosis or not, if you are experiencing symptoms of any kind, no matter how small, your body is trying to tell you send you a message. Listen to those messages and seek answers until you find out what’s wrong. Don’t wait until you’re suffering needlessly. If you think you are suffering symptoms of cervical spinal stenosis, find a doctor who is willing to look further into your symptoms. Don’t wait until cervical spinal stenosis or some other medical condition causes irreparable damage.

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