Intervertebral Disc Disease and its aftermath: Sophie Sue's success story

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: April 10, 2015
Published: February 06, 2008
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Most of you already know about my Sophie Sue and the severe neck pain (due to intervertebral disc disease) that landed her at the specialist’s place last week. So many of you wished her well and sent hugs and smooches in her direction (for which I’m eternally grateful), but since then I’ve been remiss in reporting on her condition.

So here’s an update—with some basic facts on her disease tossed in for your learning pleasure. (Sorry for the repetition for those of you who’ve already tuned in to Sophie’s saga.)

First of all, let me say that Sophie’s doing extremely well. It’s no hyperbole to say that she’s like a new dog after her surgery. The first 24 hours were rough but it’s been smooth sailing ever since. Here’s a recap of the situation:

Sophie’s neck had been hurting since Thanksgiving. First it was a reluctance to jump and a reduced spring in her step that informed me of her discomfort. She never cried or whimpered as so many owners might expect to observe in the event of  severe pain. Whenever I touched her neck (as if to massage it) I felt a marked tension in her muscles. Whenever I tried to move it she’d steel her muscles against the pressure.

Pain meds helped but didn’t fix her sluggishness and general malaise. X-rays revealed only a tiny bit of calcification (bony proliferation, as with arthritis) between a couple of the vertebrae in her neck, but this circumstantial evidence made it likely that this was the cause of her suffering: intervertebral disc disease.

With IVD (short for intervertebral disc disease), the disc (which acts as a cushion between the two vertebrae adjacent to it) has become diseased and the material inside it “slips” or “bulges” onto the sensitive nervous tissue of the spinal cord.

Dogs who suffer from IVD may simply shake (with pain) or refuse food. They may walk with a hunched back, as this can occur not only in the neck but between any vertebrae in the entire length of the spine. X-rays will often be inconclusive in diagnosing intervertebral disc disease, revealing no evidence of the calcification we saw in Sophie’s case (these changes take time to develop).

If the vertebrae affected are in the upper neck, all we typically see is pain, as in Sophie’s case. Lower down in the back, the discs will often push hard enough to actually cause paralysis, the manifestation of intervertebral disc disease most feared by knowledgeable Dachshund owners. These cases require emergency surgery but are often handled medically and with physical therapy due to the high cost of surgical intervention ($1500-$4500!).

Exercise restriction and pain relief is key for non-paralyzed dogs. But gentle massage and other therapeutic modalities (acupuncture, for example) can be helpful here, too. (Sophie had Reiki to help control her discomfort).

With neck pain, it’s often hard to decide whether to go for surgery to relieve the intense discomfort some dogs suffer. So many things can go wrong when working in this delicate area. We risk anesthetic reactions, reactions to the contrast material used in the myelogram (the X-ray procedure involving a spinal injection used to highlight the cord’s outlines), severe swelling of the spinal cord as a result of removing the offending disc material, etc.

But the end result has been worth all those risks, and not just because Sophie did so well. Truly, I had no idea how much pain she was in until I saw how gloriously happy and active she’s been ever since. From a post-surgical perspective, it’s clear that her pain must have been incredibly debilitating. From this free-and-clear vantage point, it seems unconscionable to have allowed her to continue to suffer.

Yet I can’t help thinking about the expense involved for most pet owners in serious IVD cases. Sophie had two blown discs. The surgery was a lengthy one. She required intensive post-surgical care for over 24 hours. Who can afford all that? After all, it comes to well over $4000 (at most hospitals) after all’s said and done.

As a vet, I get a discount from the vet surgeon (typically the only kind of vet qualified to undertake these procedures). Otherwise, it might not have been so easy to make the decision to take her to surgery (and God knows it took me long enough to push past my fears and get the deed done).

Enough musing and gnashing of teeth. The important thing for this mommy is that Sophie’s better. She’s looking for cats to chase and trotting all over the house, following me everywhere as she always did before her disc-related pain. Consequently, I’m a big believer in taking chronic pain sufferers to the OR rather than let them languish in intermittent discomfort for the rest of their lives—if you can afford it, that is.