Surfers Neck: The Tony Butt Story
Tony Butt is a well respected oceanographer, writer, and big wave surfer. About 3 months ago Tony contacted me at Surfbodysoul regarding advice on a serious neck injury that was hindering his ability to surf the waves he loved.
Turns out we had both been secretly admiring each others articles in ‘The Surfers Path’ magazine. Within a couple of days we were on skype to assess the severity of his injury and entered the embryonic stages of a rehabilitation strategy. Tony suggested we write an ongoing Q & A piece to follow his progress and rehabilitation towards a complete big wave surf recovery. So without stealing Tony’s words, lets take a look at our recent interview.
Oh and if you want to view the hideous wipeout that inflicted Tony’s injury, check it out here.
Introduction (by Tony Butt)
If you have some sort of activity that you enjoy doing so much that it takes up the majority of your time and energy, you could say that your life has a purpose, a meaning.
This might sound a bit obvious, but there are millions of people out there who don’t really have any ambitions or purpose to their lives. A lot of people end up ‘wishing their lives away’ waiting for the end of the week, the holidays or their retirement. They talk about how they would give up work if they won the lottery. Of course, not everybody hates their job, and a lot of people have hobbies. For some of us, our ‘hobby’ is more than just a hobby; it’s more like an obsession. And some of us have decided to make a living out of our obsession, or at least something closely associated with it. If you surf, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about. Surfing keeps us focused and adds a special meaning to our lives.
If you have been surfing seriously for almost your entire life and almost everything you do revolves around surfing, you would be pretty devastated if someone told you that you might have to give up. You would be dropped into a void, where that special ‘meaning’ in your life could be taken away.
For the last 40 years, that’s 80 per cent of my entire life, I’ve been obsessed with surfing. Practically every aspect of my life is associated with surfing – my work, where I live, who my friends are what I talk about. I surf almost every day, and in those last 40 years the only times I’ve spent more than about a month out of the water have been due to injuries. If surfing was taken away from me I’m sure I would be fine in the end, but my entire lifestyle would have to be re-constructed.
Q1: Tony, for those who don’t know you, can you give me a profile of yourself including your age, surfing and life background?
I was born in 1961 and started surfing around 1972-73. A couple of traumatic events early on, including the early death of my father, made me prioritize a healthy lifestyle over money and possessions. Over the years managed to fit in a bit of studying amongst all the travelling and looking for waves, and obtained a PhD in Physical Oceanography. Around the mid to late 1980s I became interested in big waves, mainly because I found it less stressful than crowded, competitive line-ups. I made a few trips to Peru, Chile and Hawaii but then realized that there were very good big waves closer to home, and ended up in the Basque Country for about 10 years, where I mostly surfed Meñakoz. Now, for the last few years I have been living most of the year in Asturias, in the northwest of Spain, but I’ve also spent the last 11 southern winters in Cape Town, South Africa. To make a living I mostly write and teach people about waves for surfing and about the coastal environment. Apart from a regular surf report which takes me about three hours a week, my timetable is totally flexible.
The biggest wave I’ve surfed so far happened about three months before my fiftieth birthday. As you get older, obviously you have to look after yourself more – think about what you eat, get enough sleep and do plenty of stretches, and take time to recover. But there is no reason to slow down just because of your age – that’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Q2: Can you explain the type of injury you have, when how it occurred, and the symptoms of your injury since its occurrence until now? What have you done to treat and manage these symptoms?
Around December 1999 or 2000, I had a nasty wipeout where I skimmed upside-down on my back down the face of a large wave without penetrating the water surface, and then got sucked over the falls. I came up feeling a severe pain in my neck, between my shoulder blades and down one arm. I just ignored it and kept surfing. A couple of days later the pain got so bad that I had to stay out of the water for over a month. But in the end I got over it, and forgot about it.
A few times since then I’ve had the odd bout of neck pain, but it always got better after a few days. In December 2011, however, I had a particularly bad episode. Again, I had a severe pain between my shoulder blades and down my right arm. I lost all the strength in that arm and, for a while, I couldn’t operate my fingers properly. At first I tried to ignore the pain. But after a couple of days it became so bad that wife drove me to the hospital at 04:00 one morning. They gave me an X-ray, which showed nothing, gave me some drugs and told me to go home.
At this stage I didn’t have a clue about herniated discs or spinal injuries. I thought it was probably just a severe muscular spasm, so I went to see my local physical therapist. He treated me twice a week with some light manipulations and massages, and gave me some exercises to do at home.
After two months of this, things improved. I was back in the water surfing small waves. But I was still not feeling right; I still had neck pain and had not recovered much of the strength in my right arm. So I paid to have an MRI scan at a private clinic. The result was a severely ruptured disc, which was pinching the nerves that control my arms. You could also see that the disc was sticking out into my spinal chord, which was frightening. The physical therapist told me I should give up surfing.
I decided that he was an idiot.
But it was really bugging me. What if he was right? The neck pain itself paled into insignificance compared with the devastating psychological blow I had just been given.
So, as soon as possible I consulted as many neurosurgeons and orthopaedic surgeons as I could. I tried to choose surgeons who had dealt with surfers, boxers or rugby players with similar injuries. They all told me that there was no question I couldn’t go back to surfing big waves. But first I would have to have an operation.
It would be a fairly straightforward Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion. This means they basically cut a hole in the front of your throat, reach in and take out the old disc; then just let the two vertebrae grow back together. You end up with a solid, fused bone instead of a disc.
As I write this in July 2012, I hope to be back charging harder than ever some time during the northern winter of 2012/13. If that doesn’t happen, by the southern winter of 2013.
Q3: How did you find out about Surfbodysoul and me. How has this helped with your rehabilitation process?
I found out about Surfbodysoul through the Surfer’s Path. As a fellow contributor I had always thought that a regular column on physical preparation for surfing would be extremely useful. I also thought it was about time I started doing a more serious, controlled program of stretching and core-strength exercises. When I spotted your articles in the magazine I had a look on the website and found ‘How to Cure Surfer’s Neck’. In the end I wrote to you summarizing my recent neck problems and you came back with a specific set of exercises. These were designed to free up the trapped nerve and stretch the spine, so that I could at least stay in shape before the operation. I have been combining these with some exercises from the ‘pro’ program from Surfbodysoul.
Now, after doing those exercises for about a month, my neck is pain-free for most of the time and I’m getting much fitter. My small-wave surfing is about as good as it ever was, and I’m actually tempted to paddle out in bigger surf. Of course, the herniated disc is still there, so I’m not going to do that because a wipeout could put me back to square one.
Once I get back in shape after the operation I’ll be strictly following the ‘pro’ program and working with you to develop some extra exercises for big-wave surfing.
Q4: Right now in your rehabilitation is there any advice you have for other surfers suffering from a debilitating injury, and insights that this process has given you that you would like to share?
The purpose of all this is as a kind of reference, to help other surfers who might have had a similar experience. It doesn’t have to be a neck injury – perhaps a lower back or shoulder injury, or something more bizarre. In the beginning I really struggled to find anything useful in the way of information, so hopefully a log of my own experiences can help other surfers.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Get as much info as possible, as quickly as possible. If it is neck or lower back pain get an MRI scan. I paid 250 euros, which sounds a lot, but in hindsight I would have been happy to pay twice that. With the right information early on you can make a decision as quickly as possible without waiting for things to deteriorate.
Try to understand as quickly as possible the mechanics of it. With traumatic injuries involving bones, tendons, ligaments, muscles and even nerves, it can be pretty simple, like a car engine. Once you start to understand how it works, you will start to understand what needs to be done to fix it.
If you suspect you are going to need an operation, find a surgeon who has operated on surfers, rugby players or similar people who have successfully gone back to what they were doing before. Stay clear of anybody who tells you that ‘quality of life’ is being pain-free, even if it means you. If anybody in the medical profession asks you what you do for a living (they think it’s more of a priority if your job is at risk), tell them you are a professional surfer.
Try not to de-value yourself. The debilitating nature of the injury and the negative attitude of some people might take away your self confidence. Others will probably be unable to see things from your point of view. Try to find case-studies similar to yours that have worked out well, and don’t listen to anybody with anything negative to say.
Once you get into your rehabilitation program, follow it strictly and don’t be impatient. Maybe choose a simple yardstick (e.g. I can bend my arm to such-and-such a point without it hurting) to measure your progress at regular intervals, and even write it down if it helps. In this way you can see more clearly that you are actually improving.