Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Pain In The Neck

I love to swim. It's been my primary form of exercise for my entire adult life. However, I learned late. I was terrified of being in water over my head when I was a kid. I was skinny, and the water always seemed too cold. I missed out on proper coaching, training, and competing.

After my junior year in college, at the tender age of 21, I was dumped by the woman I was seeing during the school year. I was home for the summer at my parents' house with little to do except go to work every day. I had dedicated my life to playing basketball during my teen years, but the hours of practice couldn't make up for the lack of height, hops, and skill. I would go running every night after work, but I noticed that my ankles and knees would hurt after long runs. I didn't think it would be a good idea to be running every day when I was old, like thirty. So I cast about for an exercise alternative that would be easier on my poor joints.

I decided to learn how to swim. The instructors at the YWCA were patient and did their best. I continued to work on being comfortable with going up and down doing freestyle, but my poor form necessitated a breathless stop at the end of each length where I'd hang onto the gutter for dear life and pant until the burning stopped in my lungs.

After graduation, I found a job and an apartment complex that had an indoor pool. It was a bathtub, not even 25 yards long, but it gave me the chance to practice my awful freestyle every day. I had a conversation about my difficulties with a friend who said "If you can do ten laps straight without stopping you should be able to do a mile." I took that advice to heart. I went home that night and tried it. He was right! I was hooked.

Somehow I've managed to work swimming into my daily routine. I'd put in my dutiful mile of freestyle every day at lunch. I learned how to do flip turns. I even learned how to do butterfly after I finished grad school. I started swimming with a Masters group eight years ago. Anyone who has been a competitive swimmer is better than I am. Winning high school times that I see in the newspaper are half mine in every distance and every stroke. I'm still glad to be in the water.

Fast forward to my 50th birthday. I'm in the midst of my best swimming year ever. I'm swimming before work in the morning and with my Masters buddies twice a week. The yards are piling up. I feel great! I tell myself that swimming is the best exercise there is, that I don't need anything else. I don't stretch; I don't lift weights; I don't cross-train. There's only swimming, and it's kept me fit for my entire adult life.

I woke up on 4-Mar-2007 with a stabbing, blinding pain in my neck. I iced it and took ibuprofen, but the pain only got worse. I called my doctor, who gave me some strong pain medication and sent me over to a chiropractor. The chiropractor recommended traction twice a day with an over the door traction device. But the pain progressed to the point where I couldn't bend over to put on socks. I had to stay home from work for two days, lying in bed.

Finally I had an x-ray and an MRI done. When my doctor sent me over for the MRI, he said that I should try to get an appointment with a spinal specialist now, because it would take a month for him to squeeze me in. He called me when the MRI result came back and said I had an appointment with the specialist the next day. The disk between my C6 and C7 vertebrae was bulging into my spinal cord.

I was worried when I heard that. It must have been serious if they had to rush me in so quickly. Could it be reversed? Could I end up paralyzed or permanently disabled in some way? Would I ever swim again?

The spinal specialist decided to take the conservative route. He didn't want to do surgery or cortisone shots. He prescribed a pneumatic traction device and twice-weekly physical therapy sessions. "I think you'll heal", he said.

When things were at their worst I turned to the Internet for research and comfort. I Googled for "swim c6 disk" to see if anybody else had ever written about a successful return to the pool after an injury like this. There were a couple of entries on swim forums, but not enough information to be sure. I had no idea how long it would take.

I didn't swim at all for the rest of March; April's yardage total was a big goose egg. When I slid back into a pool again on 11-May I couldn't turn my head to breathe and my right arm was still experiencing numbness and pain. I put on a pair of flippers and kicked on my back for 1000 yards. I found that backstroke wasn't too painful, so I started mixing that in with my kicking.

I ordered a snorkel from Finis that arrived in June. I could do some freestyle without turning my head to breathe. I continued with physical therapy until the end of July. Soon I was able to do freestyle again, turning my head to either side, without the snorkel. I worked my way back to being able to do butterfly and individual medley. I went back to my first Masters workout at the end of August and became a regular fixture again.

I still wasn't out of the woods. I was back in the pool, but the pain and stiffness were still there. I started taking a once-a-week yoga class in September. That made a big difference indeed. I would do an hour's worth at home several times a week to supplement the class. I found that my core strength and flexibility were both much improved.

The fourth quarter of 2007 and first quarter of 2008 have seen the best swimming yardage totals of my life. I keep track of how often and how far I swim so I can gauge how I'm doing. The pain has subsided as the yards piled up. The best indicator of my recovery comes when I sneeze. Last year I would experience searing pain whenever I sneezed or coughed. Now I'm myself again.

The time from first pain to recovery has been 13.5 months. The spinal specialist said something to me that I thought was funny: "All the traction, all the exercises, all the physical therapy is really just a way to take your mind off it. The one thing that heals this kind of injury is time."

I read that this is a common injury for men my age, and 70-80% of them recover fully. There were a lot of nights when I feared that I'd fall into the 20-30% of men who couldn't come back from this. I wanted so badly to find stories from people who were in my situation, who could tell me that it would be all right.

So if your neck hurts, your arm is numb down to the elbow, you can't lie down for a full night's sleep because of the pain, and you're wondering if you'll ever see the end of it, take heart. I'm feeling great now, and so can you.

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