Neck surgery on a 23 year old

hi all: 

i am 23 years old and was injured in a pretty severe rear end accident about 2 1/2 years ago. The accident left me with 3 different disc herniations in my neck that have continued to create pain in my day to day life. I have tried mostly every conservative treatment including: chiropractors, physical therapy, spinal decompression treatments, trigger point injections, pill regimens etc. I am deeply affected by shooting pains down my left arm and into my left shoulder multiple times in a day. I had a repeat EMG done a few days ago that shows I have 3 pinched nerves as a result of my disc herniations. I have seen an orthopedic doctor and he is reluctant to perform surgery on me because I am so young. I would love some advice from anyone who has had a surgery at a younger age and if it has helped you! Also, I'm not sure which surgery is least invasive, but I would love to hear about what options I have when it comes to surgery for my neck disc herniations and pinched nerves! 

Thanks so much,


  • Hi Gillian, 

    I had 2 disc herniations when I was 20 (no known cause) that caused me so much grief. Mine were in the lower spine and cause me to suffer leg pain, weakness and numbness I wasn't really taken too seriously by the doctors to begin with because of my age (and probably lack of contributing cause) so dealt with my symptoms for a few years, managing with physio and painkillers. By the time I was 23 I had another bad flare up and decided to put my foot down and demanded further action. This led to my first microdiscectomy (L4/5). Recovery was pretty traumatic, I had some bad luck and I am sure you have read around the board and seen that recovery is very varied for everybody. 

    As my nerve had been compressed for 3 years I still suffered with pain after surgery, though I regained sensation in my leg and for the most part could get by without painkillers as long as I was sensible with my movements etc. Unfortunately I reherniated this december, it was the same disc but treatment was quicker due to my history and I had a second discectomy in march. Recovery this time has been better for the most part but I have moments of severe pain that makes me worry that the surgery may not have been successful, but all the doctors are assuring me its ok and i am being impatient with my recovery (who knows, after 8 years of going through this it is hard to tell where my patience lies!)

    My surgery was lower spine and I am not sure if the risks/benefits are the same for a disc higher up but I would suggest researching the surgeries, being aware of those risks and the potential are still young so the idea of doing the surgery and making it worse has lifelong implications, but then again if you feel that the pain and symptoms you are experienceing now after tryng other avenues is affecting your life then maybe the risk is worth it?

    Personally for me I was tired of the pain and really felt I had no other option but to opt for surgery. Even though it never made me 100%symptom free and knowing I had the reherniation after 5 years, I still don't regret my decision as I remember how i felt back then and I know I made sure I was as informed as I could be. If you do conclude that you would like to have a surgical treatment, try to be firm and rational with the doctors, they do know what they are talking about but you know your own mind and I feel sometimes they can be dismissive due to age. 

    Whatever you decide I do with you all the best. I can really sympathise with what it is like to be the one that has the bad back in an age group that doesn't generally suffer from such problems. 

    Good Luck! 
  • Kerry- thanks so much for sharing your storyb I have been told no for surgery so many times because doctors feel that surgery may not fully 100 percent reduce my daily pain and that because I'm so young, I will only have more problems the older I get. However, it is keeping me from living my best life. I have done so much to try to reduce the pain and feel that surgery may be worth it at this point. I will certainly be doing my research and finding out what the least invasive and best option for my condition is. 
    wishing you the best in your recovery!

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  • I had my first back surgery when I was 26. Like both of you Dr's played me off a bit due to my age but after pt injections and all the the other conservative treatments failed I had to say plan and simple these are not helping or are making things worse for me. The Dr I had basically said ok I will fix the one disc I think is the worstime and that's it. I had a laminectomy done and while it did help a little I still had shooting pains in my lower back and legs. I had a 2nd surgery done last year after it got to the point again I couldn't take it. unfortunately that one just made things worse by a Dr in my opinion was more based on making money off of surgeries that may not of been the best because he had a new form of surgery that he was in on which then lead to a staph infection which left me with more pain then before. I'm now 6 days out from my 4th surgery to repair the other Dr's screw up's and fix a dural tear I had at L5 S1. All I can say is you know your body best but surgery is not 100% guarantee and I'd be questing any Dr that will tell you otherwise and I say that from experience unfortunately. Like has been said may times in this forum you are the lead person in your health care and if you feel this has brought down your quality of life then ask for surgery since other more conservative options have failed 
  • SavageSavage United StatesPosts: 3,491
    Hello Gillian.....
    There is a post titled.....Several Discussions Worth Reading. can find with search, upper right on page.
    Every highlighted discussion in so informative.

    Also, FAQs link, located on right on page....offers many other iinformative posts...ex....questions to bring to your doctor.

    I mention the above, as you said you will be researching and this site has wealth of information.
    When I was striving for better understanding of my spinal situations, i liked to see the healthy spine..which I found on videos here, SH.
    Also, I found the more I would research, the more questions I had to jot down for doctor.

    When going to the doctor, I would bring my list out so doctor could see it. 
    It was a clue that doctor would picked up on, .....that I needed time to ask some questions.
    That is mentioned in one of the above suggested posts for reading, also.

    I wish you the best with your decision making process!
    Please keep us posted!
  • I agree with Garrett, you need to be aware that there is no 100% guarantee that surgery will be successful and you need to be prepared mentally for that as well. I first discussed surgery when I was 21 with my doctor and he persuaded me not to go ahead as I was planning to go to South Africa to volunteer on a game reserve and he made the point that if I come out of surgery in worse pain or even paralysed and not be able to go on the trip, how would I feel? Would I have been angry because I could get by managing the pain and living my life. At that time it would have been the wrong choice for me but then my symptoms were still affecting my life, I couldn't lift my baby nephew for a cuddle, I couldn't get a job because nobody would employ someone with a history of back problems because they assumed i would always be calling in sick. It was then that I realised my quality of life was non-existent....I was miserable and felt that I needed to try surgery because then at least I knew I had tried everything...even if it didn't work...I knew I had done all I could. 

    My  GP re-ordered and MRI and sat with me in his office and told me there was nothing surgery could do, that he couldn't see any problems but I was adamant that he refer me to a neurosurgeon. He conceded and my surgeon sat there and showed me on my MRI where the herniation was and said there was definitely a good case for surgery. He was great, he answered my questions and explained everything clearly. I was even lucky enough to get the same surgeon for my second surgery (harder to do under NHS i think?)...but had I listened to that GP and not held my ground I wouldn't have had surgery....I had a rough first recovery but that gave me 5 years of decent (not perfect) manageable pain, let me travel etc. Now I hope this will be the case again, though maybe for longer than 5 years! 
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  • @Garrett_85 Thanks for your response, I really feel that I need to give myself some time to process on if waiting because of my age is worth it- my condition seems to worsen with time and my quality of life has definitely slipped. I can work out without pain, run, sit down for long periods at work or even sleep through the night. 

    @itsautonomic  my orthopedic doctor didn't say which one because we barely got past my age in our conversation- he was encouraging me to continue with my pain shots and physical therapy. After 6 months of PT and 4 rounds of shots, I have definitely hit a wall.  I have the majority of my issues in C5 & C6 - nerve impingements caused by disc herniations- I have unreal shooting pain as a result and many different muscle spasms that won't go away because of the aggravated nerves. I want to figure out the least invasive and most effective option which I will hopefully talk over with a new surgeon soon. 
  • @Garrett_85 correction: *i can't do those activities without pain 
  • laurenMomof2llaurenMomof2 Atlanta, GAPosts: 8

    I read your post and wanted to respond because it sounds like we have similar histories.  A year ago this month, I was rear ended by a large (20-25k lb) commercial truck.  I was driving a small coupe and it was completely totaled.  A few days after the accident, I started having a lot of stiffness in my neck.  As the weeks went on, what I thought was whiplash turned into terrible neck, upper back and left arm pain (and I am left handed).  I couldn't hold my babies for more than a few minutes, was constantly uncomfortable and had almost daily migraines from the pain in my neck and upper back.  My MRI revealed 2 herniated discs at C5-6 and C6-7.  After numerous injections, months of PT and medications, I was referred to a surgeon who basically told me I wouldn't get better (or the likelihood of getting to my pre accident self was slim to none) without surgery.  About 3 weeks later (Nov 2015), I had a 2 level ACDF.  At first, after surgery, my arm pain subsided.  However, my neck and upper back were still the same, if not worse, than the pre op pain.  About 2-3 months after the surgery, my arm pain came back.  It was like the pain was in the exact same places as before but WORSE.  After going through more injections, being on more opiates and muscle relaxers, my surgeon basically said I probably need to be treated by a PM dr.  I was beyond devastated, the thought that at 33 I would be a chronic pain patient was just very depressing, especially since my husband and I so badly want a 3rd child (I can't get pregnant on pain meds) and I have two little ones that I can't mother the way I want to because of the pain.  After the devastating appointment, I booked an appt with a surgeon in NY who many family members have used and is one of the top 10 in the country for cervical procedures.  He immediately diagnosed me as a non union, due to the absence of bone growth.  Additionally, several other surgeons in Atl (where I live) who reviewed my MRI said the same thing!  I was beside myself that now I had numerous surgeons diagnosing me with a non union.  I had my second surgery (Posterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion on C5-7) in April 2016.  This surgery has been a bear. I am still  having so much pain.  My arm pain has pretty much gone away completely, but my neck and upper back are extremely bothersome.  Just standing for 30 mins to cook dinner puts me down and needing heating pads or ice packs.  I know there's a light at the end of the tunnel; my surgeon in NY took X-rays at 6 weeks post op and I am healing very well and growing bone.  He said that as soon as the fusion is complete, the pain will be gone.  Right now it's hard to wrap my head around since I am in so much pain right now, but I trust him and am looking forward to when this pain is gone!  I just wanted to share my story with you, although I am not in my 20's, I had ZERO neck or back issues before the collision.  I am still glad I did both surgeries because I owe it my children to do everything I possibly can to be in the best shape for them.  The non invasive treatments weren't working and although he fusion surgery has a very high success rate, I was just in that unlucky group of people who don't fuse.  I hope my story helps you in some way.  Wishing you the best, I hope you get to a place of being pain free.  You are so young, I hate to hear that you are living with so much pain.

    Best wishes, 
  • What level would your surgery be at? Have you had a second opinion?

    I had a cervical fusion of the c1 and c2 at 21. I am now 29. I first saw an orthopaedic who actually refused to treat me due to the severity and placement of my problem. I was diagnosed with Os Odontoideum. I had another surgeon refuse to treat me and was finally referred to a highly regarded neurosurgeon in my area. The neurosurgeon was also hesitant to treat me, only due to my age, but said this was a matter of life or death and wanted to do it immediately. 

    Now, I should say that my story is only one story and it's fairly unique from my understanding. I was told I'd be in the hospital for a week or more after the surgery, that I'd start out in a halo, and my recovery time would be 6-12 months. In reality, I was only in the hospital for 3 nights, I had no halo after the surgery, and was back to work in just under 4 months. My fusion was posterior and I had three separate incisions. One goes from Midway up my skull and about 8 inches down and the other two are closer to my shoulders and about 2 inches in length. I will eventually need another surgery Because the c2 is pressing against the spinal cord, but that won't be until I'm in debilitating pain if ever.

    Pain-wise today, I still have pain everyday. But, I manage without any sort of medication. I should note that I do have an incredibly high pain tolerance that even my doctors were impressed with, so it doesn't bother me as much which is why I think my recovery was so swift. The worst thing for me today, is the stiffness. I constantly feel as if I need to crack my neck, but I can't. It's really annoying and always there in the back of my mind, literally!

    Again, my story is only one among many. My suggestion would be to get at least a second opinion. Some things that have really helped me with my pain is learning meditation and deep breathing. I know it sounds silly, but being able to relax and control my breathing when I am in a lot of pain has really made a huge difference.
  • @laurenMomof2 thank you so much for sharing your story with me. I am so sorry for all the pain you've been through. Hearing the surgery stories from everyone gives me both hope but also so much fear. I'm so afraid that the pain will get worse but at the same time I so badly want to give surgery a try to see if I can go back to a pain free life. I live in NY and would love to know the name of the surgeon that you used if you don't mind sharing! 

    Wishing you all the best, 
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