By Evan Koch
Cristina Szabo didn’t believe it.
“I didn’t think I had pain in my neck at all,” Szabo said. “I use my shoulder every day. The pain there was way worse there than in my neck.”
Szabo lived with constant pain in her left hand long before it affected her ability to work in the Cypress salon she owns and operates. The pain had worsened and migrated to Szabo’s elbow and shoulder in recent years, impacting her ability to get dressed, drive and pick up her two children.
Bouts of numbness and tingling in Szabo’s arm followed. Sometimes her hand and arm were stricken with extreme weakness that left her without the strength to hold scissors and combs at work. Physical therapies weren’t effective and pain medication only temporarily masked the problem.
Visits to several specialists were fruitless.
“Each person said something different,” said Szabo, who was convinced she had a shoulder injury.
After reviewing an MRI image of Szabo’s neck, an orthopedic and sports medicine specialist recommended Szabo see a physician experienced with neck injuries.
One of Szabo’s clients, Jessica Rivas, chief operating officer at Memorial Hermann Cypress Hospital, echoed that sentiment and recommended Szabo visit one of the hospital’s affiliated neurosurgeons, Sebastian Herrera, MD.
Discovering the Source and Explaining the Pain
After visiting with Szabo and reviewing MRI images of her neck and shoulder, Dr. Herrera confirmed what Szabo once thought improbable—she did indeed have a neck injury that would require surgery.
Szabo had a C5-C6 disc herniation, just above her shoulders. Vertebral discs are positioned between the interlocking bones of the spine, called vertebrae, and act as cushions that also facilitate movement in the spine. With a herniated disc, material leaks out of the disc membrane wall and can agitate a nerve root, radiating pain to different parts of the body.
A nerve phenomenon known as referred pain, in which pain is felt at a different site than its source, made it difficult for Szabo to pinpoint the cause of her discomfort.
“When people have pain that shoots down their arm or results in weakness, and their fine motor skills are affected, there is likely a problem with the nerve,” Dr. Herrera said. “Most of the time this is something that can be treated with good, conservative management but in other cases, surgery may be required.”
Because of the prolonged nerve irritation and ineffectiveness of physical therapies and medication, the choice was made to treat Szabo’s herniation with surgery.
“Problems with discs do get better,” Dr. Herrera said. “But you need a diagnosis to be made as soon as possible to increase the chances of effective treatment.”
Surgery Relieves The Pain
Several surgical options exist to treat a herniated disc when alternative therapies and medications are ineffective.
“The vertebrae can be fused together or an artificial disc can be inserted between the vertebrae,” Dr. Herrera said. “Long-range data has shown that movement is maintained between the two bones with artificial disc replacement.”
Artificial disc replacement surgery is often an outpatient procedure, meaning patients can return home the same day of surgery to recover. Patients may also have the option to stay overnight following the surgery, based on need or preference.
Szabo had undergone surgery before, but never on her neck.
“I was a little nervous,” she said. “But Dr. Herrera really put me at ease.”
While recovering from surgery at Memorial Hermann Cypress, Szabo discovered that she could once again move her left arm.
“Recovery was way easier than I thought it would be,” Szabo said. “Every day I woke up, I felt less pain. It was awesome.”
Szabo returned to her salon three weeks following surgery and has steadily seen improvements at work and home as her pain has dissipated.
“I don’t have pain shooting down my arm anymore,” she said. “I can sleep on my left side. I don’t have trouble putting on a shirt anymore and I can pick up my sons up again.”
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