The story so far: I started BJJ about 4 years ago when I was 34. I did a lot of different things at that time; submission grappling, BJJ, kickboxing, and regular boxing — I was in the gym every day for about two hours at least. That was a lot. One day we were drilling in class, some kind of guard attack. I was in guard, got pulled forward, didn’t pay attention and posted with my left arm without really bracing my upper body, and boom — disc herniated. I assume my neck must’ve snapped back at a weird angle. I didn’t think at the time that this was a disc issue. I thought it was an especially bad tweak or pulled muscle and didn’t go and see a doctor until a year later, when the tingling started and the pain just would not go away. I had stopped doing anything but BJJ at that point, because it was just too much and I kept getting hurt in small ways (toe, knee, etc.). The pain came and went and it felt as if someone was pressing the tip of a broom into my back right next to the shoulder blade really really hard. Sitting in a chair was difficult, driving was terrible, because it caused my left arm to tingle and have ‘pins-and-needles’ to the point where it was so tingly that it felt numb.
So I started physical therapy and after 3 additional years I was ‘almost pain-free’ up until summer 2015, when I ended up being completely pain-free…yay!
November 2015 I stayed for open mat, rolled with an outside visitor, got greedy, went for a kimura from guard that was maybe 20% doable and didn’t let go when I should’ve. I got stacked hard and I immediately knew something popped again. Pain in the back and shoulder. Nothing I hadn’t had before, so I just thought ‘Shit, here we go again. Oh well, back to PT it is.’ It was completely my fault and it was ego, plain and simple. I really wanted that tap.
This time it didn’t get better, it actually got worse. The pain was constant, there was no position or contortion I could put my body in that would relieve it (believe me, I tried them all) and I went back to the doc, who prescribed pain medication and more PT. Pain didn’t go away until end of February and I hadn’t really slept for six weeks at that point because of the pain and believe me, that does something to a person. I stopped going to class or roll in December, because it aggravated the pain and tingling.
The pain let off towards the end of February/beginning of March, but with the pain receding (not gone, mind you, but tolerable levels for the most part) and being finally able to sleep again I noticed that my triceps on the left side was gone. As was my left pec. That freaked me out and I wrote my doc, who transferred me to a sports medicine doctor, who did a bunch of tests and ordered x-rays and an MRI. After the results came in he said that I need to see a surgeon for a consultation, saw that one the next Monday, with the result that I will get spinal fusion on c4-c7. The discs are herniated and pinch almost half-way through the cord. Oh, did I mention that in addition to the atrophy I had also developed a slight tremor in the left hand? It’s scary shit. And as I’ve learned, when it comes to spinal injuries it turns out that pain or lack of pain is not necessarily an indicator of improvement or healing. People can be completely pain-free but have continuing nerve damage.
I got a couple of second and third opinions but basically there is no other option at this point than surgery. The pressure on the cord is so strong that the nerve damage would continue, which is bad news. As to the muscle coming back…time will tell if the nerve can regenerate itself. Which sucks but to be honest, I’m looking forward to not being in pain, to be able to sit in a chair for longer than 1 minute without squirming all the time, drive a car without discomfort…you get the idea. I’ll deal with the atrophy later, all I can do right now is stop it from progressing and work on rehab.
As far as returning to BJJ — that’s an open question. It will take at least a year for the bone to fuse together and I will have screws and plates in my neck, so to be honest, I’m not sure if I will ever go back again. Maybe, maybe not. I love Jiu Jitsu and it has been a huge positive element in my life, mentally and physically. However, I’m a hobbyist, not a competitor. I like rolling hard and it’ll be difficult to change that mindset. I’ve never been into all that spinning shit, but I still would have to re-think my game A LOT in order to protect my neck…hah!
I’m getting surgery this week. The ideal timeline, if there are no complications, is that I will be able to return home the next day, and return to work in about 10 days (or work from home if I can’t). There’s a two week and a six week check-in with the surgeon. Neck brace for six weeks, after three months I should be able to start lifting. Total recovery time should be a year.
Given that BJJ is out, my plan is to start doing Starting Strength again as soon as I’m able, this time for real. I’ve done the program for 8 months five or six years ago, but half-assed it a bit. There are some weightlifting gyms in the area that have coaches, so I can actually work with someone who is certified check my technique and whatnot. I’ve always liked weightlifting but doing BJJ and weights together was just not possible if I wanted to do other things, like, I don’t know, spend time with my wife, hang out with friends…you know, nice things.