As someone who trained pretty hard for the better part of ten years with a fused neck (C4-5), I am perhaps uniquely positioned to discuss the pitfalls of stubbornly doing jiu jitsu full-bore when a more intelligent approach was probably called for from the outset. Making matters worse, because I wrestled during childhood, I had a deeply ingrained habit of posting on my head and using my neck, which only exacerbated my problem. In short, I had no business training as hard and as often as I did (several times per week and sometimes twice per day) given the structural damage to my neck and given how much pain I was living with on a daily basis. That I am in my 40s didn't help matters. So, why on earth was I willing to run such risks? Because I love training, learning, and teaching jiu jitsu. Plus, jiu jitsu has always been therapeutic for me, from the standpoint of mental health--which is a topic for another post.
But what did my love of jiu jitsu coupled with my stubbornness get me? A second neck surgery last December--which involved fusions at two additional levels (C5-6 and C6-7). Now, all of my range of motion is being handled by an also damaged disc (C3-4)--which I will likely have to have replaced within the next two years. Because I have received some emails during the past year from grapplers asking about neck surgery and training, I thought I would share a bit more when it comes to my own more recent experiences. For instance, given the current condition of my neck, can I still train? As is often the case--especially for someone who teaches philosophy as I do--it all depends on what one means by "train"! While there are plenty of things I can still do, lamentably, there are also plenty of things I will never be able to do again (if I am being smart about my health and long-term well-being).
For starters, I can no longer have people attack my neck. That means no chokes, no shoulder pressure from side control, no cross collar grips for attacking and controlling, no pulling on my head and neck more generally. As such, I have found that training only no-gi is much better for me since it eliminates the temptation for my training partner to grab my collar (even by accident). It also makes it easier for me to peel people's grips off when they accidentally grab my head or neck. Second, I have to be super selective when it comes to who I can roll with. White belts and blue belts are largely out of the question unless they are especially relaxed. Upper belts are fine so long as they know and obey the rule--namely, don't touch my head and neck and I will return the favor. It leads to some odd rolls because if neither person is going after head and neck control, it changes the dynamics of the flow--but that's fine as far as it goes. Finally, I can train leg locks pretty hard so long as the other person is also willing to play footsies. One of the beauties of the leg lock game is that is helps keep your neck safe. So, unsurprisingly, I have focused my attention very narrowly on improving this aspect of my game.
But this isn't to say I don't miss being able to train more openly and liberally as had previously been the case. Now I am relegated to flow rolls and footsies! But I still have the ability to learn other techniques. Plus, and most importantly, I still have the ability to teach jiu jitsu. So, rather than being frustrated by my current and future limitations, I try to focus on the things that can still be part of my own limited jiu jitsu journey. It's not always easy accepting my new role, but as is often the case, the important thing is keep things in perspective. That said, if you have any questions about neck injuries, neck surgeries, and training, feel free to drop me a line at:
Obviously, I don't have any medical advise to give--I am not that kind of doctor! But I can share my own experiences and whatever insight I have managed to glean from my own 12+ year jiu jitsu journey living with neck pain.
p.s. It is perhaps worth pointing out that my neck was injured 20 years ago in a bicycle accident. I was hit by a car. The car won.