Neck surgery eliminates pain, restores function and returns patient to an active lifestyle

Featured patient: Larry Stiffleman
Cervical spine surgery

Larry StifflemanAfter years of suffering with neck pain, Larry Stiffelman finally decided to go see an orthopedic spine specialist. During his first meeting with Washington University orthopedic spine specialist, Jacob Buchowski, MD, he understood surgery might be an option but he was not prepared to hear that it was the only option. If you do not have the surgery, one day you may become paralyzed. The surgery is necessary to stop any further damage to the injured spinal cord. There is a 50% chance that you will improve with the surgery. There is a 40% chance that you will remain the same. There is a 10% chance getting worse despite having the surgery and a 1-2% of paralysis. Larry Stiffelman recalls sitting with his wife, Sally, in Dr. Buchowski’s office and hearing these words. He says, “I started asking for other options, such as an injection or more physical therapy.” The concerning part was any kind of serious fall, or trauma could leave him paralyzed.

Larry Stiffelman is a 61-year-old husband and father of two daughters and is a traveling salesman for a telecommunication company based out of St. Louis. Stiffelman recalls three pretty severe car accidents that he was able to walk away from without a scratch but says he can’t pinpoint the exact cause of damage to his neck.

However, he can pinpoint when things began taking a turn for the worse. His job requires travel and he says, “I’d fall asleep during a plane ride and would wake up with my neck frozen.” It would last a day or two and then eventually that stretched into a week to 10 days. He says in May of 2017 it didn’t go away, and he spent 3 weeks on the floor of his basement. His wife, Sally, convinced him it was time to see a doctor.

His first appointment was with Heidi Prather, MD, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist with Washington University Orthopedics. After his visit, he began physical therapy. After 3 months of physical therapy, he still had pain and his motor skills were deteriorating. He was no longer able to do push-ups and was starting to have balance issues. Buttoning his shirt became impossible. He says, “I had lost all of the muscle in my left triceps.” He was quickly referred to Dr. Buchowski. Stiffelman says, “I could not believe how quickly I was able to get a new patient appointment and how quickly we could schedule the surgery.”

During that first devastating consultation with Dr. Buchowski, Stiffelman recalls going silent but Sally was able to take the lead and start asking all the necessary questions. He says, “Dr. Buchowski was very thorough and straight forward.”

“Mr. Stiffelman had severe compression of the spinal cord in his neck due to bone spurs and disc protrusions. As a result of the compression, he was losing upper and lower extremity strength and sensation and had developed difficulties with balance, gait and ability to perform fine motor tasks such as picking up coins or buttoning buttons,” says Dr. Buchowski. “Unfortunately, given his symptoms at this point the only reasonable option was to proceed with surgery.” 

Stiffelman reached a tipping point for where surgery would offer relief for the daily unendurable pain. After an exhaustive search, speaking with other surgeons and receiving multiple opinions, there were many qualities that made Stiffelman know Buchowski was the right surgeon for him. “His approach to my surgery and his willingness to sit down and go over the entire procedure step-by-step with us not once but twice. And finally, his resume and his work.”

Stiffelman says the other surgeons wanted to take chunks out of his hip and use that bone to rebuild his spine/neck. So instead of healing from the neck surgery, he would have to deal with recovering from a hip surgery.He says, “I was hearing the hip surgery recovery was horribly painful and a harder recovery than the neck surgery and would weaken my hip and cause future issues.”

He says he was much more comfortable with Dr. Buchowski’s plan. “He was going to use bones from my damaged vertebras and mix them with cadaver bones.”  

Stiffelman admits to being scared but knew he had to stay positive. He also knew he was in good hands. Stiffelman says, “Dr. Buchowski and his team, Megan and Erica, put me at complete ease.”

On November 2, 2017, Larry underwent a two-hour surgery where he had a three-level cervical fusion.

“To address the compression, I performed a three-level fusion from the front of the neck and removed the protruding discs and bone spurs, replacing the discs with pieces of cadaver bone, and putting a plate on the front of the spine,” says Dr. Buchowski.

After surgery, Stiffelman says, “I woke up in recovery pain free. A little sore from the surgery but the severe pain I lived with for years was now gone. I was told my condition may not improve and yet instantly I was making improvements.”

When Dr. Buchowski came by to follow up, Stiffelman just wanted to hug him. “I was so happy and grateful,” says Stiffelman. He recalls being very touched that Megan stopped by at 9:30 pm at night to check-in on him. “The entire process was seamless like a well-oiled machine. I have never waited more than five minutes for Dr. Buchowski. He was always on time. They are an amazing team, just so good.” 

Next month, Larry is starting his 29th year with his company. He is back to work full-time and back to walking five miles a day and continues to improve. Before the surgery, he was down to half of normal range of motion and now he has regained almost full range of motion.

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