A pinched nerve brings agony; a surgeon brings relief

Rachel Frazier
Rachel Frazier didn’t know what caused a pinched nerve in her neck; but she knew she couldn’t live with the pain.
Rachel Frazier is a jogger, golfer and power walker. She’s used to the odd muscle and joint aches that come with being physically active. But the pain that came the winter of 2012 was something entirely different. It started in her upper left arm and radiated downward to her thumb, and it kept getting worse.

For six months, the cause was a mystery. Did she tear a muscle? Was it a spasm? Massage didn’t help. Acupuncture didn’t help. Pain killers and muscle relaxants didn’t help. Even high-powered steroids couldn’t relieve the searing pain that had grown so severe she couldn’t sleep at night. An MRI showed a slight bulge in one of the disks in her neck, but nothing that concerned her doctor at the time.

“I thought to myself, ‘I can’t live with this pain much longer,’” says Frazier, a 43-year-old swimwear merchandiser from Tualatin.

She carried on the best she could, even taking a business trip to the Olympic swim trials in Nebraska in June. But when an orthopedic specialist had an opening in his schedule, she cut her trip short and flew back to Oregon. The specialist determined that the bulging disk was pinching a nerve, sending pain along the nerve pathway. He suggested that she see a surgeon right away, and referred her to J. Rafe Sales, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon with Providence Brain and Spine Institute.

Herniated disks typically strike adults between the ages of 30 and 50. They can be caused by an injury, but often they happen spontaneously.

“Most of the time, arm pain from a cervical herniated disk can be controlled with medication, physical therapy or by modifying physical activity,” Dr. Sales says. “If severe pain lasts longer than six weeks, however, spine surgery is a reliable treatment option.”

“Put me in. I’m there.”
Dr. Sales explained to Frazier her options. She immediately chose surgery. There was a catch, though. She was supposed to be the maid of honor at her best friend’s wedding in North Carolina two weeks away – not much time to schedule a spine surgery, let alone recover from it. She could get a steroid injection to tide her over, but it was likely to wear off halfway through her trip.

“Dr. Sales left the room for a minute and came back with a smile,” Frazier recalls. “He said one of his surgeries had been rescheduled and he had an opening the next day. I said, ‘Put me in, I’m there.’”

Better still, Frazier’s damaged disk could be repaired through an approach that required only a small incision, allowing her to recover much faster than with traditional surgery. On July 18, Dr. Sales removed the bulge that had made Frazier’s life miserable for months and replaced it with a small implant that will prevent the disk from herniating again.

For Frazier, the relief was immediate. “I woke up and the pain was gone.”

Two weeks later, she was standing on the shores of a North Carolina lake watching her best friend get married. Today, Frazier is back to jogging, golfing and power walking.

“I wouldn’t wish that pain on my worst enemy,” she reflects. “Now I feel great.”

Providence Brain and Spine Institute treats all disorders of the spine, offering surgical and nonsurgical therapies. To learn more, call 503-216-1055.

Related resources
Clinical background on Rachel's device: Relieving the pain of a cervical herniated disk
Video: Excruciating back pain gone immediately