While the lockout was easily the biggest story of the NFL offseason, there’s no doubt that Peyton Manning’s neck has been the biggest story of the NFL’s preseason. During the early parts of the story, few doubted that Manning would recover in time to suit up for the Colts’ opener against the Houston Texans. Much of this was due to the tremendous durability that Peyton Manning has exhibited during his long & storied NFL career. However, another reason that most people assumed Manning’s injury wouldn’t prevent him from missing any games is that most people have no idea how debilitating and serious neck injuries (particularly neck injuries that result in nerve damage) can be. I was actually always under the impression that Manning would be forced to sit out games, largely because a little over a year ago I suffered a very similar injury to Peyton Manning.
Last May, while on vacation as I waited to begin a new job, I went to the gym on a Tuesday morning in the same way I’d done hundreds of times before. I felt no different that day than I had the night before when I played pickup basketball with friends. However, within minutes, while doing an ab exercise I felt a sharp pain in my neck & shoulder as I raised up. I wasn’t sure what happened but I knew my workout was over. My right arm/shoulder was in severe pain and was quickly getting worse. I could barely handle the 4 minute drive from the gym to my house. I called my (now) wife to come home and take me to the doctor. By the time she arrived home 20 minutes later, I was writhing in pain on my living room floor. I collapsed in pain three separate time while trying to walk to my wife’s car and had to be wheeled into my doctor’s office. Once there, the doctor immediately ordered x-rays and administered a pain killing injection in my ass. As strong as I’m sure the injection was, it had no discernible effect on my pain. My doctor said he had an idea what may have happened to me but need x-rays & MRIs to be sure. X-rays were up first.
I went into the x-ray room and struggled to stand up for shoulder x-rays. After two x-rays, the time came for me to raise my right arm above my shoulder. I’m not exactly sure what happened after this but I do know that the next thing I remember is looking up at the nurse while I lay on the x-ray room floor, covered in sweat. I was a ghostly shade of white and there would be no more x-rays, or anything else at the Doctor’s office that day. The pain was so intense that my body literally shut down for a brief moment. My wife took me home, filled me with pain meds and muscle relaxers and put me to bed. Over the next few days, I ingested an ungodly amount of both oxycodone and carisoprodol in an effort to curb my tremendous pain. When I was finally able to have an MRI, my worst fears were confirmed. I had herniated a disc in my neck. The C5 to be exact and it was pressing down on the nerves located near C5. The result of this was an intense searing pain in my right arm, specifically my tricep, forearm and wris,t as well as a total loss of all feeling in the index and middle finger of my right hand.
Now, Peyton Manning is a far more well conditioned athlete than I was, or am, and has access to the finest medical care and rehabilitative services, however nerves are a very tricky thing and they all react differently to major injuries. One of the things that we’ve heard about Manning is that he lacks strength and stamina in his right arm as a result of this injury. I suffered the same fate. In fact, my nerve damage was so severe that one of the heads of my right tricep muscle died. Literally. I have no lateral head in my right tricep muscle anymore. Now, I don’t believe that Manning’s herniation and nerve damage were this severe but I do suspect he has suffered a great loss of strength in his tricep and shoulder. Strength that is going to take a long time to be restored in full, if ever.
After a couple of weeks, most of the referential, nerve related pain had subsided and I was told I could begin physical therapy within another week or so. This physical therapy would last nearly 3 months. During this time, I would be unable to run, play basketball or (obviously) lift weights. My neck was still so fragile that any jarring motions would jeopardize my recovery and, perhaps, cause the herniation to worsen. Once I was able to resume some level of physical activity, the only approved exercises were riding a stationary bike or using an elliptical. At the time of my injury, I was in some of the best shape of my life and weighed a little over 170 lbs. By the time I came up to D.C. in late June, I had dropped to 150 lbs. My lowest weight since I was a senior in high school. Physical therapy was an arduous and, often times, painful undertaking but with the help of a great team group of PTs I was able to finish my rehabilitation in just under 3 months. I was released to begin running on grass and, within a month begin playing basketball again (though my doctor advised to give up basketball completely). Unfortunately, playing basketball again wouldn’t be as easy I thought.
I’m a pretty decent basketball player and have shooting range that easily extends to the NBA three point line. The first time I attempted to shoot a basketball after my injury was from the free throw line. The ball ended up 5 feet short and about three feet to the right. That’s how much strength I had lost in my right tricep and shoulder. I took me nearly 6 months to rebuild the strength on my right side to the point that I could play basketball at the same level again. It took me nearly a year to restore my overall strength to pre-injury levels. In order to lessen the strain on my neck & disc, I have completely changed how I lift weights (many more reps, much less weight) and adhere to a daily icing regimen for my neck. I still have no feeling in my right index finger above the knuckle. As I think I’ve communicated, this is a major injury. One that dramatically effects quality of life as well as your ability to participate in any type of athletic competition, much less one as fast, violent and demanding as professional football.
It’s been nearly a year and a half since my injury and I’m back up to around 165 lbs. I’m able to play basketball at a high level again and I lift 5-6 days a week again, just as I did prior to my neck injury. However, I’m not the same. Not even close. I don’t sleep as well as I once did, I can’t do things I once took for granted like riding a roller coaster or sleeping on my stomach, or even folding laundry. My right arm is somewhat smaller than my left as a result of the loss of the lateral head of my tricep and other nerve related damage. Simply put, I’m not the same person, physically, anymore.
Like I said earlier, I’m not Peyton Manning nor did I have the access to the type of care that he will be afforded. But I did suffer a very similar injury at around the same age. I feel confident in saying his next few months will be hellish. May and June of last year definitely were for me. Like most men who played lots of sports, I've had my fair share of injuries over the years. Lots of broken fingers, three broken noses, a torn calf muscle, a fractured ankle, a broken jaw (in two places) and a host of others. None of these compare to the herniation of my C5. Not even close. I sincerely hope that Peyton Manning recovers fully and is back on the field for the Indianapolis Colts. I can’t see it happening this year. And frankly, I wouldn’t be shocked if he never does again.