Spine Surgery Success Story: Fire Chief Back at Work After Cervical Fusion

Hear from the spine surgeon who performed the procedure.

Written by Kelly Rehan

Kenneth Caudle had intense headaches, neck pain, and numbness—symptoms that hindered his ability to engage with his family and perform his job as fire chief of the Huntley Fire Protection District in Illinois. Caudle suffered from a condition called cervical myelopathy, which occurs when the spinal cord is compressed in the neck.

But, today, Caudle is back at work protecting his community—and back to being a playful dad of two young children—thanks to a successful spine surgery that decompressed his spinal cord and restored his function.
Treating Cervical Myelopathy
When the spinal cord or spinal nerves are compressed, neurologic symptoms (eg, weakness, numbness, electric shock-like pain) often develop. In some cases, conservative treatments, such as physical therapy or neck bracing, may be used to help manage pain, but spine surgery may be recommended to physically free up space around the cramped nerves.

And that’s exactly the route Caudle took to treat his pain. His spine surgeon, G. Alexander Jones, MD, FAANS, performed an anterior cervical corpectomy and fusion (ACCF) procedure to relieve his spinal cord compression and create stability in his spine. Similar to an anterior cervical discectomy, a corpectomy involves removing two intervertebral discs, as well as the vertebral body between them.

“Chief Caudle’s job is very physically demanding—even as the chief, he has to be able to perform the job of any fire fighter under his command,” says Dr. Jones, who is an Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, IL. “Doing the least invasive operation possible was important to restore function and get the best outcome postoperatively.”

First, Dr. Jones removed a vertebra and two bulging intervertebral discs in Caudle’s neck, which relieved pressure on the spinal cord. While the decompression solved the issue of spinal cord compression, it introduced instability to the affected area. To restore stability, Dr. Jones performed a spinal fusion by replacing the removed vertebra with a bone-filled implant that would “fuse” to the bones above and below it. Dr. Jones used spinal instrumentation (a plate and screws) to secure the placement of the implant.

Are You Considering Cervical Spine Surgery? Dr. Jones’ Advice for Success
If you’re weighing the possibility of cervical spine surgery, Dr. Jones says the outcomes for an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) procedure are generally good.

“Pain after surgery is typically well tolerated,” Dr. Jones says. “If the patient had significant arm pain prior to surgery, it may feel better immediately after surgery.”

One question patients often have going into surgery is about recovery time. That varies greatly from patient to patient, Dr. Jones says, and your work environment plays a big role.

“I have patients who work in offices who are back to work within a week or two,” Dr. Jones says. “But, if someone is a firefighter, for example, it will take them longer to get to 100%.”

Another common concern is how to know if there are problems during the recovery period. Dr. Jones says the big red flags are if you have an increasing amount of pain (though some pain after surgery is normal), any new drainage or signs of infection, or a change in muscle strength or sensation. Call your doctor if you experience any of those signs and symptoms.

The most important thing for patients considering spine surgery is to not approach it as a quick fix, Dr. Jones says. While Caudle’s result from spine surgery was a great success, others might find their road to recovery peppered with more bumps. Making sure you understand the desired outcomes of surgery for you is imperative—because the goals of surgery are different for everyone.

“Having realistic expectations is one of the most important parts going into any operation—this is especially true of spine surgery,” Dr. Jones says. “The experience is variable from one person to the next, and conversations between the spine surgeon and patient before the operation will help set the right expectations.”

More Information about Cervical Myelopathy and Neck Surgery
If you’ve been diagnosed with cervical myelopathy, and are weighing the risks and benefits of spine surgery, it’s important to learn as much as you can about your condition and treatment options. You can explore more about cervical myelopathy in Cervical Myelopathy and Spinal Cord Compression. You may also read Cervical Spine Surgery: Will You Need Surgery for Your Neck Pain?

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Cervical Spine Surgery: Recovery