There and Back Again – My Alexander Technique Journey through Neck Surgery
It was a Monday evening in mid-February of 2020. Our four year old grandson had just spent a couple of days with us, and my wife Anne was relaxing after the excitement and extra activity.
A couple of days earlier, I had noticed some unusual neck pain and a bit of weakness in my left arm, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. That evening, the weakness had become more pronounced to the point where I could barely lift it. I did a little research online and soon realized this could be serious. I told Anne we needed to go to the Emergency Room.
The ER doctor quickly determined that there were two quite different probable causes – a stroke or a pinched nerve. He had ruled out a heart attack with an EKG, and a major stroke with a CT scan, but I would need several MRIs to determine if there had been a minor stoke and to see what was going on in my neck and rotator cuff. I also needed an ultrasound to make sure it wasn’t a less likely heart condition. He scheduled these for the next morning and I was admitted to the hospital late that night.
Things moved quickly on Tuesday. I had the tests and that afternoon met with a neurosurgeon who strongly recommended laminectomy and spinal fusion. There was severe, partially congenital, stenosis in my upper neck that was severely constricting my spinal cord. It already presented a serious risk and would almost certainly get worse over time. He didn’t sugar coat the situation, saying it was major surgery, would last about 3 hours, and that I should expect a good deal of pain and discomfort for some time. Full recovery would take a year and I’d need to use a neck brace for a couple of months.
I was resistant at first, but Anne and I did some research and soon realized he was absolutely correct in his assessment, given the extreme degree of spinal cord restriction. Two weeks later I had the operation, followed by three days recovery in the hospital. As I write this it has been 6 weeks since the surgery.
On the plus side, my recovery has gone very smoothly and I’m now quite active, taking 3 or 4 long walks each day and doing a great many activities around the house. My left arm seems to be slowing returning to normal. The pain turned out to be far less than I expected, and after a week or so at home I no longer needed any medications. I did use ice packs a lot for a couple of weeks, but that, too, has become unnecessary.
Not surprisingly, there is some reduction in my ability to move my head in relation to my torso. Because I’m still wearing a neck brace, it’s too early for me to fully assess just how much that reduction is. But already I am pleasantly surprised at how little my overall functioning seems to have changed.
I attribute a lot of the speedy and easy recovery to the skill of my surgeon, Dr Andrew Livingston, who is generally regarded as one of the best in the area, as well as his team, and my friend and neighbor, Dr. Ken Gross, an excellent anesthesiologist who volunteered to assist in the operation.
I also believe my Alexander Technique training contributed a great deal as well.
And that takes me to the downside of the experience. The neck, and how it is managed, holds a very special place in Alexander Technique thinking. For structural reasons, the fusion needed to encompass C3 to T2 which meant that 5 of the 7 vertebrae in my neck are no longer mobile.
Having a “free neck” means something quite different from what it did before! I even wondered for a while if I could still be an effective Alexander teacher.
I knew from talking with another teacher who had a similar operation years ago that there might be some negative judgement from other teachers, and perhaps even from my students. What good is the Technique – or me! – if this can happen to someone who has been teaching for almost 40 years?
These are the sorts of questions I’ll be writing about in future blogs, along with my ongoing recovery and teaching experiences. I’m doing this partly for my own benefit, but also in the hope that my story may be helpful to other Alexander Technique teachers and to AT students.
In the meantime, your comments, suggestions and questions are most welcome. Please post them below and/or on Facebook.