On completion of my first ACDF, the surgeon immediately informed my anxious husband that I would never ride a bike again.
That was in 2007 and, to be fair, I have not taken to the saddle since. After initial improvements, unfortunately many Degenerative Cervical Myelopathy (DCM) symptoms returned. Fusion had not taken place and the discs had slipped slightly.
On discharge from my second ACDF in 2008, with discs caged and this time a soft collar for six weeks, I was told not to put any strain on my neck at all. I still had balance/walking problems and numbness alongside other symptoms.
Neither my GP nor my neurologist ever contradicted the “no strain on the neck” message. Although I did learn that if I had MS I would have been immediately offered physiotherapy and hydrotherapy.
So, I dutifully did not put strain on my neck for more than eight years – my symptoms worsened as I gained weight, and felt rubbish, in an exercise desert.
After all, logically, the gym was out of the question – I would have fallen over if I had gone on the treadmill thanks to the balance problems. Even in the shopping centre my legs seized up after a three-minute slow and painful walk. Furthermore, my favourites in a previous life, rowing machines and swimming certainly put strain on the neck, as did all weight-training equipment.
Giving up work and becoming more housebound, in total frustration, I found a private physiotherapist and explained the problems. She was knowledgeable and caring. I worked hard to strengthen my core muscles, improve my balance and more. However, progress was slow and, to be honest, the exercises boring in the longer term. However, she had opened a window of possibility.
I asked my GP directly for a referral for hydrotherapy and she agreed.
Six months later I was standing chest-deep in warm water – stretching, balancing, walking forwards, sideways and backwards, bending my knees, practising going up and down a step in the pool, sitting on a chair and cycling with my legs and relaxing every muscle as I floated. Movements I had struggled with, or avoided on land for years, were all possible.
My initial six sessions gave me the confidence, and the ability, to tackle so much more out of the water too.
Additional sessions have built up my strength and confidence even further.
I can now tackle many tasks in the garden, go for a short walk on uneven ground in the countryside, and walk up and down stairs without too much discomfort or fear of falling. I can even bend enough to put on boots, socks and tights again!
Of course, there are still not-so-good days when I need to think harder about where all my limbs are and how to move them. However, the confidence I have regained through hydrotherapy keeps me going and keen to take on more physical challenges at every possible opportunity.
Unsurprisingly, my mood too has greatly improved – I see a much brighter future ahead rather than the gloom and frustration of a continuing decline in physical abilities and increasingly limited lifestyle.
The transformation hydrotherapy has brought to my exercise desert is clearly anecdotal evidence. Proper research is needed into the benefits of hydrotherapy for people with DCM.
If hydrotherapy can be shown to improve outcomes, and relieve low mood associated with limited lifestyles, then we must push for the option of hydrotherapy to be incorporated into all DCM post-operative treatment programmes. It also possibly has the potential to help relieve pre-operative problems too.