LAPD Detective Feeling Stronger Every Day After Surgery Takes Pressure Off His Spinal Cord

Los Angeles - May 4, 2012 – Humberto Irigoyen’s jiujitsu partner had him in a choke hold when a jolt like electricity flashed through his body.

“I’d never felt anything like that before,” said the Los Angeles Police Department detective who enjoys training in martial arts in his spare time. The next time the shock came – when he turned his head to breathe while swimming – it was so strong his whole body “just kind of stopped.”

“That was one of my biggest scares,” recalls Irigoyen, a Los Angeles Police Department detective. He admits he didn’t feel too tough when it seemed as if a nagging accident-related neck injury would require surgery. His worry faded when he sat down with Frank Acosta Jr., MD, a neurosurgeon and associate professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

“Everyone was saying, ‘Don’t have surgery.’ All the guys at my gym said, ‘No, dude, don’t have surgery,’” Irigoyen says. “I was scared. I’d never had surgery before. So I thought, let me see what this guy has to say. We talked about my accident and I told him that I had done everything that was required – went to physical therapy, tried acupuncture, tried chiropractors – and nothing helped. He basically set my mind at ease and explained the whole process. … He said, ‘I want to do the best job I can for you and I wouldn’t recommend surgery if you hadn’t tried anything else. ... But at this point, that disc is actually pushing on your spinal cord.’”

Irigoyen, a husband and the father of a 12-year-old daughter, was hurt eight years earlier when his car was struck while he was responding to a call. The neck injury did not seem serious at first. But Irigoyen noticed a steady decrease in strength, primarily in his right arm and hand, and he eventually experienced weakness and tingling sensations in his arms and upper body. As time went by and the condition worsened, the Westlake Village, Calif., resident and his doctor became convinced that his neck was the problem.

“I was in the Marine Corps and I could knock out 20 dead-hang pullups like nothing. And all of a sudden I noticed a decrease in strength. I figured it was probably from the traffic collision and it would clear up or the physical therapy would take care of it, but it never did. The strength never came back,” Irigoyen says.

By the time he was referred to Acosta, the disc between two cervical vertebrae, C5 and C6, was bulging. A healthy disc acts as a cushion and spacer between the bones of the spine; a damaged one balloons out and allows the vertebrae to collapse.

“He had some reflexes that were concerning for compression of the spinal cord in his neck, and the MRI showed that he had a large disc herniation causing moderate to severe narrowing of the spinal canal and the tunnels for nerves coming out of the spinal column. … The concern is that he would progressively lose more and more function and start to have problems walking or with balance or even using his hands at all. If he were to have a jolt to the head or get into some sort of accident, he could potentially have severe damage to his spinal cord,” Acosta comments.

“He was a very active guy [and] to have the amount of pressure on the spinal cord he had and still be performing at such a high level was impressive. But as a police officer, he needed to be 100 percent,” notes Acosta, whose father is a retired LAPD detective.

Irigoyen prepared himself for surgery and recuperation by getting into the best physical shape possible. Then, in a two-hour operation last July 14, Acosta cleared out the damaged disc.

“Anterior cervical fusion is done through a small incision on the side of the neck. Because the spine is right behind the trachea and esophagus, we push those structures aside, take the entire disc out and replace it with a plastic cage that’s packed with bone materials,” he says. The resulting fusion of the two vertebrae will protect the spinal cord and nerves from additional injury.

Irigoyen, who expected to spend a night or two in the hospital, noticed relief from the numbness and tingling right away and was able to go home just hours after the operation.

“I started going to physical therapy and they were amazed at how fast I was recovering. I’d been told to expect to be off work for six months, but I was back in about three,” says Irigoyen, adding that he can feel his strength coming back every day. Before surgery, he could do only two or three repetitions of one particular arm and shoulder exercise; now he easily can do 15 or 20.

He’s eager to resume his martial arts training, too, but Acosta urges him to wait until July to be sure the fusion is solid.

Irigoyen knows that back and neck disc problems may be an issue for police officers, who wear and carry heavy gear, and detectives, who spend long hours working at computers. When asked about his medical treatment and surgical experience, he now offers different advice than what he got.

“It’s depressing when you’re doing 50 to 100 pushups, no problem, and you see it going down to 10, struggling to get 11, and you know it’s not from muscular fatigue. You know it’s something else inside your body that’s preventing you from doing it,” Irigoyen says. “For me now, to kind of hit these milestones again, to see my progress, I’m amazed and I’m super-thankful to Dr. Acosta, and I’ve recommended him to all my friends.”