This is Spinal...Damage?

Sometimes, I wish I weren’t right all the time. At least, I wish I weren’t right all the time about my own body. Wait, no; Judy Blume taught me to trust my own instincts about my (female) self. Yay periods! No, that’s still not right.

Okay, mostly I wish I weren’t right about predicting when something ridiculous is wrong with me, and I that I may need more surgery. Or, that I’m randomly about to become the weirdest case of “sick” or “falling apart” in the history of some doctor’s caseload.

When Collin was a baby, I had to have my tonsils out in an emergency surgery, for example, after having an abscess on them drained in the emergency room, because it had become so swollen it was compromising my airway. By the morning, it had re-filled with so much fluid, that I had to be wheeled back to surgery within an hour of my follow-up check because my entire airway was blocked. When it comes to finding ways to be messed up, I don’t screw around; I go hard.

Since I started this ever-so-epic journey of Chiari, another thing I was right about:

*Insert Digression*

Dear Doctor-First-Neurologist-Who-Told-Me-I-Was-Fine,

 I wasn’t.


Patient Who Told You So

 *End Digression*

Anyway, since I got sick, even before I knew it, I have also been complaining about very specific neck pain. I can point at two spots, one worse than the other, right down to the centimeter, that bother me. And, as it turns out, I have been right all along about those things too.

This is how these complaints have traditionally been received….

“Rachel, Chiari comes with neck pain. It’ll feel better once you are decompressed,” say both surgeons for both of my surgeries.

Cue Rachel feeling trusting of her surgeons and fully believing that it’s true.

But my neck pain didn’t, and hasn’t, improved. And, post-operatively:

“Rachel, you’ve had Chiari surgery. Your neck muscles were opened like a curtain. Twice. You’ll have some post-operative pain for a while. Give it some time. Plus, your neck will always be a bit weak,” say both surgeons for both of my surgeries.

Cue Rachel feeling trusting of her surgeons, but at the one-year point of surgery #2, a little suspicious. Mostly because she can’t even wash her hair without crying.

So, I talked to my pain management doctor. He’s the very bestest doctor in the whole world, so I really trust him, and I know that he listens to me. Hell, even if he’s not, he’s the best faker in the world. He’s really good at making me feel like he’s listening. I imagine that in his outside life, he’s used up all his listening skills on his exhausting patients, like the ones I can hear through the walls while I wait, begging for Oxycodone because they have indescribable pain in a different spot than last time, and his wife wants to murder him because he can’t remember to bring home the damn bagels that she just called him about on the ride home.

Anyway, I’m not on any pain medication right now, so my pain is, not currently what you’d callmanaged.” It’s out there in the open, screaming to be heard. It’s basically having its own little pain pride parade every day. But, he’s still trying like hell to help. He’s concerned. I’m concerned. Bryon’s concerned. I think the mailman, who is forced to witness my walk of (non)-shame to the box in my pajamas every day, is also concerned.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect no pain for the rest of my life (not that I didn’t hope for that scenario – don’t all Chiari patients long to be a success story that does something amazing like running a marathon again, or being in a Wheaties commercial?); but, I did hope to be able to sit upright for larger portions of the day.

I explained for the billionth time, to him, the few spots on my neck that were agonizing, and stressed that I’ve said this at every appointment to every doctor. And, I told him that there are other things that are freaking me the fuck out, now too. My arms are going to sleep, sometimes for up to 18-24 hours at a time. I get dizzy when I look up, sometimes to the point of falling over. I can’t see if I look to the left or right too long. My legs are week, especially my left one. My left hip hurts so much sometimes that my Tiny Tim impression is far too true-to-life.

He’s known that my neck has hurt all along, and he’s done plenty to try to ameliorate it, from physical therapy, to suggesting a medical pain implant device, as a last resort. But he did a full exam and was pretty shocked at the extent of the new weakness. So, he sent me for a battery of tests and images that made me feel like someone was finally taking it a little more seriously than, “this comes with Chiari.”

The most “fun” test was the EMG, because everyone loves to be stabbed with tiny needles to see how their nerves are functioning. Spoiler alert: my nerves seem to be functioning okay. But, this is good news, because we were temporarily terrified of a potential MS diagnosis. Phew.

My surgeon likes to say:

“your spine looks great! I wish I had this spine!”

This assessment has perpetually annoyed the fuck out of me. No matter what specific question I had for him, his answer was always that my spine was great. Great. Fantastic. Great. No issues. Great.


That seems so weird for someone who has had neck issues since day one. It was, in fact, the first thing that sent me to the doctor, aside from the headache. My neck pain spread so far down my shoulder and neck that my whole arm became useless. I couldn’t lift my work bag. Thanks to fantastic military medicine, I was prescribed Motrin, and I was miraculously healed.

My surgeon is a fantastic surgeon, but he has a reputation for not really “cooking stats,” but for keeping his stats the way he wants them. This means that if you go see him for Problem A, he won’t “let” problem B pop up on your case, because he doesn’t want to mess up his high success rate on his surgical stats. So, no matter what you come up with on your imaging, he’ll tell you that you look great.

I’m a Chiari patient. He fixed my Chiari problem. I’m not a spinal patient. Not even if that Chiari caused the spinal damage (which it obviously did). Chiari fixed. Job done.

This can be a problem in sick-person world, because finding a spinal surgeon to take on someone else’s work is, well, challenging. Duh, they don’t want their hands dirty with someone else’s trash stats either! Meanwhile, patients suffer.

And, in case you hadn’t guessed, you don’t want the Jiffy Lube of spinal surgeons messing around in there, especially at the C-spine level. Your C-Spine is the level between your neck and shoulders. A tiny slip and you are paralyzed from there below, including breathing. Hooray! Jiffy Lube surgeon means the potential for diapers and a ventilator forever! At least I won’t be able to say my neck hurts, right? Not funny? No sad clown?

So, drumroll….

I get all of my imaging results back and what do you know? My C-Spine is rather fucked up. In fact, I’d like to take a moment to congratulate C3 and C4 right now for being the only two vertebrae, currently, holding down the fort. Great job, guys. A round of applause.

C-1, which is the vertebrae that my first surgeon shaved to make room for my brain, whelp, that one is deteriorating pretty badly. C5-7 are also degenerating, and the discs at most of these joints are bulging, especially badly at C7.

The insane part is that these are the exact spots that I point to, every time for the doctor. Every. Fucking. God. Damn. Time. And, I always say, “This spot is the worst,” at C1. Always. At C1, I always demonstrate how if I hold my head a little differently, I can relieve some of the pressure, but it doesn’t help for long. Hmmm, wonder why that is! Because that’s where my amazing (I’ve decided to compliment it from now on, in hopes that it will be nicer to me) brain used to be sitting!


Did you know, that Chiari is a progressive condition? That the longer your brain, which is fucking heavy, sits outside your skull, and rests on your SPINE, where it’s not supposed to sit, it does damage? It’s a damage domino. I was 37 when I was “fixed” the first time, which failed; 38 when I was fixed the second time. So, I was 38 when the weight of my brain finally got lifted off my spine. For 38 years the weight of my brain rested on my spine. No shit there’s a bunch of damage there.

So, what to do?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question. I have no idea. I’m scared right now. I have a bunch of information that I have no way to fully figure out, at the moment. I’m relatively certain my current surgeon will say what he always says, but who knows? With a report in hand that says my spine isn’t great, he may not be able to say that. Of course, doctors like him like to say things like, “this kind of thing is normal,” especially for women my age. Since this damage is progressive from reports before, I know it’s most certainly not normal, my man.

Um no.

Most women my age can function without a C-Collar. Just sayin’, doc. Not going to get away with that one. But, I don’t want to rush into spinal surgery, either. Fusion is the most common spinal surgery, but at the C-level it’s a big damn deal.

And, it’s relatively rare at C-1. There are significant risks of fusion at C-1, because C-1 holds your head ON your neck, and makes it turn. It means that there’s an almost guaranteed reduction in mobility and range of motion, usually up to, or at least, 50%. Hooray! Because of this, it’s usually only done when required; for example, when your neck is broken, or you are literally decapitated internally. It’s also done when, wait for it, your neck bone (yeah, like mine) deteriorates. Booyah!

Ding! Ding! Ding! What does she win!? The high probability that she’ll soon be filled with neck hardware, new scars, another shaved head, and the increased frequency of surprising her from both behind and all sides. 

There’s a pain implant device, but is that just a Band-Aid until my neck gets so bad that I can’t move at all? Then what? What if there’s nothing left to fuse at that point? Do I go back on pain meds and hope for the best? Oy!

Oh, and by the way, my hip hurt because I had broken it, and never realized it. Yeah. For real. I broke my damn hip! Who the hell does that! Apparently me.

Okay, I’m being dramatic.

But, it’s mostly true. Apparently, I broke a big ol’ chip of bone off my hip and there it is on the X-ray, having had its maiden voyage, and then rejoined its pals on the old SS. Hip Bone! I wonder where that chip was trying to get to?

Now, I don’t feel like such a damn baby for whining about it. The report says that I may have also a labral tear, but meh. I think the broken hip sounds more impressive. I think I’ll adopt a permanent limp from now on.

Bryon says he thinks I have osteoporosis because since he’s known me I’ve broken too many bones, and my spine is falling apart way too quickly for anyone’s taste. And, he’s all braggy about having never broken any bones. I think that instead of worrying about me having osteoporosis, he should worry about which of his bones I’m planning to break for making fun of my pitiful weakness. Except I’d probably break something trying to do that, so that’s a terrible idea! And who gets to almost forty without breaking a single bone? Didn’t he play as a child? Come on! I was a dork, and even I broke two bones as a kid! Lame ones, but still.

We have about a jillion doctors’ appointments coming up to talk over options and what to do in the next few weeks, and I’m hoping for more answers, but I know this process. It’ll leave us with more questions and more answers than before. I know we won’t know anything more. I know that it will be months before I know what’s happening. I have names and numbers of more surgeons for second and third opinions, if my surgeon decides to be a butthead; but they are all, of course, out of network. Ugh. But, it’s the beginning of the process.

So, away we go again! Wish us luck.

I leave you with the image of this insanity, if only because of how happy my boy and I look. Bryon noticed that every time he tickled Collin, I laughed too. Collin’s laugh always gets me. Every. Single. Time.


I may not be able to sit up for more than a few minutes at a time, or get dressed very often, or comb my hair, or put on my makeup, but I can let my boy lay next to me and listen to him laugh.

So, ignore the up-the-nose-shot, and how ugly I look, and enjoy mommy-son joy.