How I Avoided Spinal Surgery With Yoga
It was winter and the waves were pretty big, at least for a newbie like me. I paddled hard and pulled into the wave. The face steepened, the board pitched and I was down.
The surfboard snapped to the end of the leash; I knew it was on a high speed recoil, so I came up for air with my hands in front of my face. The board, however, slammed into the side of my neck with full force.
Several weeks passed. I’d hoped the swelling and soft tissue damage would repair itself over time, but things only got worse. I was in pain —8 to 9 on a scale of 1 to 10— constantly. I couldn’t sleep and my right arm was going numb.
The MRI showed a slipped disc at C5-6. My doctor couldn’t believe I was functioning, he said, “You should be begging me for surgery.” They wanted to slice open the front of my neck, pull out the disc, put in a cadaver bone, and fuse my neck together.
A friend of mine told me something revolutionary, though.“You should be going to surgery like a bride to the altar. If you’re not ecstatic about it, don’t do it.”
I chose yoga, not surgery…
Over the next 9 months, I broke in two. Emotionally, I was a wreck. I had no physical outlet to release my pent up anger about the injury. I feared my career as a yoga teacher was over.
I felt like a victim. I felt alone. And all the emotion I’d held in protective posture around my heart, neck and shoulders was being forced into my awareness.
But I refused to have spinal surgery.
Learning to Listen
My body was begging me to slow down and care for it. I began to listen to the tiny whisper of my heart, begging for a happy life, where I loved myself and followed my dreams, instead of doing what I thought I was supposed to do.
It was the beginning of deep physical and emotional healing. The more aware and present I became, the less pain I had, both in my neck, and in my heart —a place I hadn’t even realized was hurting.
My old ways of moving were causing me non-stop pain. Pulling my shoulders down (the solution most yoga teachers and therapists offered) was making it worse. I was forced to learn a new way to work, to start over.
Disclaimer: Before I tell you what worked for me, I want to say that avoiding surgery isn’t the solution for everyone. Just because it worked for me, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Now days there are also surgical options that don’t include fusion.
This is a risky injury. Consult a professional for help, then make the best, most informed decision you can. This is written as a suggestion, as my opinion, so remember, you are solely responsible for yourself and your actions, including any listed here. Being accountable is a huge aspect of healing.
Restoring The Cervical Curve
At the neck, the cervical spine has a curve that dips forward, into the body. My neck was already somewhat flat to begin with, but after my surfing accident, and two previous whiplash injuries, my curve was reversed. This is classic for most people who have a slipped or ruptured disc.
Here is what I did to restore a gentle cervical curve.
- Roll a washcloth or small towel into a thin roll.
- Place the roll under your neck as you lie on the floor.
- The roll should feel large enough to lift the back of your neck gently, but not so large as to cause pain; adjust the size if necessary.
- Note: as you do this practice regularly over time, and restore the curve in your neck, you’ll need to gradually increase the size of the roll.
- Take a few breaths as you rest on the ground, getting used to the towel there.
- Now, very slowly, and with your chin lifted away from your chest, turn your head toward the right.
- The moment you feel tightness, restriction or discomfort stop, even if you haven’t turned your head very far.
- Take some deep breaths and relax your shoulders back towards the ground, especially the one you’re turning away from.
- If your neck lets go and you can turn a little more, go ahead and do so, stopping again at the next resistant spot.
- Note: the goal is not about going for maximum rotation, but about finding and relaxing tight areas in the front or sides of the neck, while lifting the back of the neck.
- Just as slowly, bring your head back to the middle, still keeping your chin lifted.
- Repeat on the other side.
- Do each direction 3 times and build up slowly to ten times over a couple weeks, or as you feel ready.
- Once you can easily do ten, then you’re ready to increase the size of your roll and start with 3 each side again.
The second key practice that got me out of pain was to create length in my spine. This takes the compression off the disc and eases any pinching that may be happening to the nerves.
At Home Traction
- You’ll need an eight foot yoga belt, buckled into a secure loop.
- Slip one end of the loop over both sides of a door knob (inside and outside an open door, as above).
- The other end of the loop should hang down to the floor.
- Lie on your back on the floor and slip the back your skull into the loop so it catches along side your ears and under the bony ridge at the base of your head.
- Once it feels secure, begin to scoot away from the door, until you feel traction, go only as far as feels safe.
- Your head will be hovering above the ground, but will besupported by the belt.
- Stay in the pose for at least 30 seconds, or as long as feels safe and good to you.
- To come out of it, push with your legs and back up until your head is on the ground again, then roll to your side to sit up carefully.
Neck & Shoulder Strengthening
Up to this point, everything was an undoing. Eventually, the pain subsided, my cervical curve was in a better state and I was in a place to rebuild.
I began to tackle the connection of the shoulders in relevance to neck alignment. They are intimately connected in this process, but come more towards the end, as a strengthening and maintaining aspect, rather than at the beginning, during rebuilding.
I wrote a book about what I learned in relation to healing my neck. You can read a sample of it here: Healthy Shoulders: A Primer For Strengthening & Stretching