Disc Replacement Surgery at Ingalls Provides Dramatic Relief for Oak Lawn Carpenter

As a professional carpenter, Ed Stalzer uses an array of tools to perform his craft. But the 46-year-old Oak Lawn man is the first to admit his most valuable tools are his hands.

Until recently, though, Ed’s hands — and his right hand in particular — were giving him troubles.

A pinched nerve in his neck — caused by a compressed cervical nerve root — resulted in pain, numbness and tingling. It also compromised his ability to grip small or light objects.

“The biggest problem was waking up in the morning,” the active husband and father of two explained. “My arms were asleep when I’d get up. It would take about 10 minutes to ‘wake’ them up. I’ve dealt with the problem for years.”

The clinical term for Ed’s problem — cervical radiculopathy — occurs when pain from a pinched nerve in the neck radiates into the shoulder, arm and hands. Common causes include a family history of the condition, wear and tear caused by daily activities, athletics and industrial work that involves looking up much of the time.

“Cervical radiculopathy pain travels down the arm in the area of the involved nerve,” explains Martin Luken, M.D., renowned neurosurgeon on staff at Ingalls Memorial Hospital. “The pain is usually described as sharp. There can also be a ‘pins and needles’ sensation, a feeling of weakness with certain activities or complete numbness.”

In Ed’s case, his grip was diminished when trying to hold a pencil or piece of paper. He constantly dropped them.

“You think you’re holding it, but you can’t feel your hand, and you drop it,” Ed said. “My right arm would be heavy and weak.” Over the years, Ed met with doctors who recommended surgical fusion of the affected C6 and C7 vertebrae in his neck. Wary of surgery — and fusion surgery in particular — Ed kept looking for answers.

“That would have been a career-ender for me,” he said. “I would have had to spend months in a brace; I wouldn’t be able to drive for a long time, and I wouldn’t be able to move my neck as well.”

As a carpenter who builds custom staircases, Ed knew he needed to have full movement of his neck to successfully do his job.

“Spinal fusion was definitely not for me,” he said. Instead, he tried epidural injections to relieve the troubling symptoms, but an “insanely bad headache” following his second injection put an end to that option. “I knew that wasn’t the answer either,” he added.

As his condition worsened, Ed would sometimes feel a sudden “electrical shock” sensation from his neck to his hands when turning his head a certain way. Known as “Lhermitte’s sign,” and named for the French neurologist Jean Lhermitte who first described it, the uncomfortable symptom occurs when a person bends the head forward or flexes the neck.

“I would feel a jolt, and the pain would travel from my neck to my fingertips,” he remembers. “My wife noticed that I was doing it more and more. I knew I needed to do something.”

The patient, Susan Anderson, had been plagued with debilitating neck pain and discomfort for years. The article described how Dr. Luken had performed a revolutionary double cervical disc replacement with spinal fusion. Her results were spectacular, and she was able to resume normal activities within weeks.

Ed was intrigued by what he read and made an appointment to see Dr. Luken at his Ingalls office.

“The moment I met with him, I immediately had a sense of confidence in him,” he remembers. Instead of recommending spinal fusion surgery, Dr. Luken discussed a highly attractive alternative: cervical disc replacement.

“The cervical spine is made up of seven bones, called cervical vertebrae, stacked on top of each other in the neck area,” Dr. Luken explained. “The cervical discs are the cushions that lie between the cervical vertebrae and act as shock absorbers to allow the neck to move freely.”

Cervical disc replacement surgery involves removing a diseased cervical disc and replacing it with an artificial one.

“It is recommended when the channel through which the nerves pass has gotten too narrow, causing pain, numbness, or weakness,” Dr. Luken said. “When these symptoms don’t respond to nonsurgical types of treatment, disc replacement surgery is an excellent option. Plus, it offers the advantage of allowing more movement and creating less stress on the remaining vertebrae.”

Though Ed had been afraid to have any type of surgery, he knew disc replacement surgery — and Dr. Luken — would put an end to his pain and allow him to continue to work as a carpenter.

Ed underwent the delicate surgery at Ingalls in March, stayed in the hospital for only a day and a half, and was back to work in a couple weeks.

“The morning after surgery, I was moving my neck and had very little pain,” he said. “I’ve had no symptoms since. I didn’t even need physical therapy afterwards.”

Even better, just three months after his life-changing procedure at Ingalls, Ed was enjoying an adventurous family vacation in the Rocky Mountains.

“We hiked. We rode horses; it was great,” he said. “There’s no way I could have gotten on a horse or even gone on vacation if I’d had spinal fusion surgery. I’d still be in a back brace.”

Instead, Ed is back to doing what he loves best, spending time with his family, enjoying an active lifestyle and working.

“I’ll admit I questioned whether having any kind of surgery was the right thing to do,” he adds. “But everyone I met commented on Dr. Luken’s skill and reputation as being the best. I now know that to be true. From the moment I walked into his office and especially on the day of surgery, I felt comfortable and at ease. I can’t thank Dr. Luken and Ingalls Hospital enough for taking care of my pain and giving me my life back.”

For more information about artificial disc replacement at Ingalls Memorial Hospital, call the Advanced Orthopedic Institute at 708.915.PAIN

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