It’s a warm night, or maybe I’m just warm. Sprints across the mats on one side, wrestling shots across the other. It’s Oct 2008, I feel good. I’m 37 years old, a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and in-shape. The warmup is just starting to get going in earnest. This is important, as my body, especially my ever stiffening neck works about 300% better once I’ve got a good sweat going.
I drop, twenty pushups, no problem. I’ve been lifting weights since I was about 15, I give these no thought.
Dropping to the mat, I start to push…
nothing… Seriously nothing. Nothing hurts, but my right hand feels like it’s been utterly disconnected from my body. There is no pain, but I can’t do a single pushup with my right arm. My left is fine, I could probably crank out a couple one armed pushups with that one, but at the moment I’m seriously concerned.
I continue the class with my right arm not working well. I’m already at class, warmed up, and my other arm works.
A few days later, and i still can’t push with my arm. I go to the gym, as it’s easier on my body and more controlled than Jiu Jitsu. I unrack warmup weight on the incline bench, lower it 2 inches then re-rack in a semi-panic. Something is clearly not right. It felt like the bar with warmup weight was just going to crash down… I take all the weight off the bar, do a few reps and conclude pushing the bar itself is about all my right arm has in it. W-T-F?
I get an MRI on my neck which tells the grim tale.
“… incontrovertible joint hypertrophy, stenosis, and bulging discs c4-c5, c5-c6, c6-c7.”
I’m prescribed a series of cortisone shots in my neck to ease the pressure in the inflamed area on my neck. The first one improves my arm by 80%, the 2nd shot, a few weeks later, gets me another 15% back. I already have visible atrophy of my right pec and arm. The neural equivalent of bed rest has taken its toll.
Over the next year, my neck gets worse. It hurts every day, all day and the only time it doesn’t hurt is when I’m warmed up and training. I’m popping NSAIDs like Pez.
“What’s that maraca sound?” “Oh it’s the 3 types of Advil in Joe’s gym bag”
A year after the first series of shots, I end up having another round of cortisone shots…this round does almost nothing.
The doctors say I’m done with Jiu Jitsu.
I research surgical options to fix my neck. They are not encouraging. Something around 70% of the people who have back/neck surgery end up not better off a few years later….and I’m not confident the other ‘successful’ % ever play sports again.
I’m not willing to quit, I’m not dead yet, and I’m going to try everything under the sun to fix my neck.
Let’s look in the bright side:
I’ve got the rest of my life to sort it out.
Thus begins my quest to fix my neck and continue training.
The Neck Fix
During my googling, I stumbled upon healyourbulgingdisc.com I buy the e-book they offer, not expecting that much. It was a bit over $100, but I was in pain 24/7 and looking for just about anything to help. I very much understood why ‘House’ was such a cranky bastard.
Turns out there was a wealth of great information in the healyourdisc guide around causes and non-surgical treatments for bulging discs.
The simplified problem of bulging discs is the vertebrae push together, forcing the jelly-like disc outward, and the outward protrusion causes pain, and can pinch nerves. My problem is the bulging discs are pinching off nerves that connect to my right arm.
My protocol for fixing my neck included
Flashback: Jan 2010 workout notes
|Not fucking around any more. I will fix this disc|
|4×15 min ice PM on couch|
|Day #7 of DTS traction|
|fish oil, glucosamine/chondroitin supplements am,pm|
|200mg ibuprofen before bed|
|iced 4x times later in the day|
Motion is the way discs get nutrition, BUT as the body clamps down to prevent further damage, the nutrient stream is cut off. Solution: loosen up body, add motion.
2-3 times a day I’d either go for walks, or sit on an exercise ball and bounce while sitting upright with good posture. The bounce sessions were about 5 minutes each.
There is not enough space between the discs, Solution: Traction, either cervical(neck) or lumbar(inversion table). By spacing things out, it encourages the discs to go back into place.
Computer controlled cervical traction. Laying on a table, my head gets strapped into a harness. Over a 20 minute cycle, the computer gently applies a bit more, then a bit less traction, going through tension/relax cycles to encourage the vertebrae to get father apart. Since the discs are being squeezed and forced out like pushing on a doughnut on the counter, the thought is by relieving the pressure, the discs are encouraged to uncompress and go back to where they belong.
The 11 appointment DTS therapy, 3 times a week set me back about $1100. The DTS therapy worked. I experienced significant reduction in neck pain.
Post DTS, thinking I wanted to continue neck traction, but didn’t have $1100 every 3 weeks. Searching the internets, I found a home cervical traction setup I had used briefly in a Physical Therapy office. This was a refurbished unit and was about $325, rather than the $600+ when new. “Onnnn Ebaaayyyy”
Here’s the unit I picked up.
I had tried a couple of wimpy inflatable neck collar types. The bad news, they can’t generate nearly enough force to actually get useful traction going. THE GOOD NEWS: These might be the best in-flight neck sleep assist things ever invented. If you need to nod off on a flight, I highly recommend them. The traction collar will keep your head vertical when you inflate the neck doughnuts, and you can sleep without the dreaded airplane neck pillow kink.
Inflammation vs Ice
The more the inflammation reduces, the more motion the area gets, the more things can fix themselves.
Ice, Ice, Baby <queues music, looks for high-top-fade> The icing protocol I used was straight from the heal your bulging disc guide. Get freezer ziplock bags, fill with ice and water. Apply DIRECTLY to neck. Stop at 15 minutes.
Do NOT get the blue ice packs. They can be COLDER than ice+water, and they get warm at an inconsistent rate. I gave myself a large patch of frostbite on my neck using the gel cold packs early on. Ice is always the same temperature.
Stop at 15 minutes with the ziplock+ice+water to avoid frostbite. Wait 45 minutes, then repeat. I did this while watching TV at night, and it helped a ton.
Fucking yoga. I have an entire post outlined about how yoga is a four letter word. I did 90 minute Bikram yoga at least twice a week during this time. Post yoga, I’d drinking about 30 grams of protein, a bit of OJ in my car while icing my neck for 15 minutes in the parking lot. The loosening effect on my neck and shoulders helped get movement in the area.
Yes the yoga instructor babbling is annoying, especially since Bikram had his students memorize his idiocy verbatim and repeat it during classes.
“holding this pose for 10 seconds is the equivalent of running 5 miles”
I looked around in class. There were a lot of fat people who seemed to be holding this pose just fine who I’d bet a taco couldn’t run 5 miles if they were on fire.
I found the hot yoga more beneficial than room temperature yoga. The heat helped me loosen up and get moving a lot quicker.
Warmup/warmdown in BJJ. After twelve years in BJJ, I cannot fathom why in most BJJ classes, there is little to no neck warmup/warmdown or strengthening. My first instructor Mauricio Zingano had almost none of it in his program until Luiz Claudio came in, then it was added it to the daily warmup. By this time my neck was already on its way to jacked.
I mentioned to MZ how great the neck stuff was.
“Yeah, we used to do this back at Ricksons..I don’t know why we stopped doing it”
Simple neck warmup
20 reps each:
Lay on your back, head off the floor. Nod your head ‘yes’ touching your chin to your chest
Still on your back, turn your head in a ‘no’ motion, repeat.
Still on your back, tilt your ear to your shoulder, ‘maybe’ repeat.
Flip on to a stomach down, elbow and toes plank hold. Start with your chin tucked down to your chest, bring your head up to a bit past level. Repeat.
Forward and back neck bridges. Controversial, and imo worth doing in a controlled manner. When beginning, support a lot of your bodyweight on your hands. Go easy and stop before fatigue.
Warmdown, repeat the warmup sequence, halving the reps.
Part of the neck warmup should include a shoulder warmup. If the shoulders and lats are too tight, they can create tension which radiates up to the neck.
Arm circles forward and back
Steve Maxwell has a variety of shoulder mobility exercises and is worth looking up.
Over the next two years my neck got better. I had to balance neck-stress with neck rehab, always tilting the scale toward more rehab. I never stopped jiu jitsu during this time.
2017 Neck revisited
My neck is currently doing well. When I start to get stiff, I pay extra attention to warmup/warmdown and will throw in ice and traction sessions as necessary. I also go for semi-regular chiropractic adjustments, and throw in yoga about once a week to keep things loose.
This event stoked my lifelong curiosity into fitness, mobility, strength and conditioning.