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How I Dealt With Spinal Stenosis in Summer

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I face many challenges in my lifetime as a person with spina bifida. But the challenge I faced in the summer of 2014 was a new one and really hampered what I could physically do. That summer, I had a diagnosis of spinal stenosis… in essence, a narrowing of my spinal canal.

That picture is me in April 2008. See the neck brace? That’s a result of C1 and C2 vertebrae in my neck having been fractured. I hear you asking, “How’d that happen?” It was, believe it or not, a simple head turn. That’s it. I was at my computer, turned my head to look at the TV, and crack went my neck, and down I went in pain. Freaky thing, that.

Fast forward to July 2014. At first I didn’t know anything was wrong. On July 1, I went about a normal “first of the month” for me, which involved some errands. On this day I happened to cap it off with a visit to my mom’s new office in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky (a suburb of Cincinnati). The office sits atop a hill. With a bus stop at the bottom, I had to climb the hill to get to the building where my mom worked, and of course I did. When I got home that evening, my spine pressed the big red “screw you, I ain’t moving” button. So did my arms. But I thought I had just overdone it. So I tried to scale back on my walks, which at the time were typically two to four miles a day. I still walked, but I tried to slow down.

That didn’t help. By July 5, I was noticing other symptoms — my fingertips were going numb, my arms felt like lead weights even when sitting still, and of course my neck and back still hurt. The first two set off alarm bells big time. I was already set for an appointment on July 8 with my regular doctor, so I went and explained my symptoms. He immediately decided I needed to have an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan. I had it done July 18. That’s a 10 day turnaround. And in the immortal words of Ron Burgundy, “Well, that escalated quickly!”

By July 18 at 11:45 PM:

— I was put on a corticosteroid.
— I had my doctor calling me at 10:30 at night (on a Friday, at that) to tell me the severity of the situation… his office closes at 5 p.m.
— I had a referral being put in for a neurosurgeon.

I had herniated discs at C4 and C5, I suspect when climbing that hill on July 1. When climbing steep hills, my head would move forward and back with each forward motion I made to push my chair. That on top of the fact that my spinal cord was already narrowed caused severe issues.

The summer of 2014 was the most frustrating of my life. Not only was I in constant pain, but my left arm was all but useless. My right arm felt like a lead weight too. And my strength? Gone like a barn in a tornado. No longer could I lift from the floor to my wheelchair in one smooth motion…I had to go from floor to couch to wheelchair. It got so bad that once, when I made a bathroom stop at the public library, I had to have security assist me to get back up into my chair. On top of that, those walks to the mall or other places I wanted to go took double the amount of time they had pre-injury.

For the rest of the summer, my life consisted of doctor’s appointments. I went from the primary doctor to the neurosurgeon, then back again. Finally on October 2, 2014, I had an anterior cervical discectomy with fusion of my C4 to C6 vertebrae, and spent three months doing little more than the continued shuttling between Cincinnati and what was then my home in Florence. I couldn’t go anywhere at all on my own… I had to be driven. That was aggravating.

While I haven’t had a similar issue since, I now know what to expect. And I won’t allow myself to be frustrated. Summer is for fun, and if I can’t have fun in the ways I usually do, I will find other things I can do.

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Originally published: June 12, 2017
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