When you have neck pain, you probably write it off as a result of sleeping in a funny position, or pushing too hard at the gym, or lifting something the wrong way. But in some (more rare) cases, as Dance Moms star Abby Lee Miller recently learned, severe neck pain could be a clue that something more serious is going on.
Miller was recently hospitalized and underwent emergency surgery after she had severe neck pain, according to Extra.
Miller first went to see Hooman M. Melamed, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon, on Friday, April 13, after she developed "excruciating" neck pain and weakness in her arm. “I said that something wasn’t right and told her to go to the emergency room,” Dr. Melamed tells SELF. “These are things that you don’t want to sit on.”
Dr. Melamed admitted Miller to the hospital, and her condition started deteriorating. “By Monday morning, she was fully paralyzed from the neck down,” he says. Dr. Melamed and his team did a CT scan and saw what seemed to be an infection that had spread from the bottom of her neck down to the lower part of her back. Miller was rushed into emergency surgery early Tuesday and underwent a five-hour surgical procedure known as a multi-level laminectomy. The procedure removed part of several vertebrae to help relieve pressure on her spinal cord.
Initially, Dr. Melamed thought Miller had a rare spinal cord infection, but he sent the tissue he removed from her back to pathology for testing and the results revealed something else. Preliminary reports showed that the reality star likely has Burkitt lymphoma, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is a type of cancer that starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes (part of the body’s immune system), per the American Cancer Society.
The good news: Miller’s physical condition has improved and she is starting to move her arms and legs more. “I almost cried when I saw she could move a little,” Dr. Melamed says. “Hopefully, she’ll be able to walk again.”
The fact that Miller went to see Dr. Melamed so quickly was potentially lifesaving. “If she waited, she would have died," he says. "Her blood pressure was plummeting and her kidneys were starting to fail.”
Most cases of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma do not start as neck pain, Felipe Samaniego, M.D., an associate professor in the Department of Lymphoma/Myeloma at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells SELF.
Usually, someone will notice an oversized lymph node (possibly felt in the neck or throat) as one of their first symptoms, he says, and testing will determine that it's cancer. Although you may notice some swelling, feeling pain is unusual at that point, he says. Dr. Samaniego estimates that only about 5 percent of the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma patients he sees feel discomfort.
However, the particular form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that Miller appears to have is aggressive, meaning it grows quickly, Michael Jain, M.D., Ph.D., a hematologist with Moffitt Cancer Center, tells SELF. In cases of Burkitt lymphoma, it’s possible for someone to have sudden, excruciating pain, he says. Given that there are a lot of lymph nodes in the neck, Dr. Jain explains, it’s understandable that someone would have a lot of neck pain if a lymphoma was growing rapidly there.
In an aggressive case like this, a patient might notice tingling or numbing in their limbs or paralysis, like Miller experienced. That can happen when there's a mass growing in the neck that gets so big that it presses on nerves that run down your body, Dr. Jain explains.
Miller’s story is pretty alarming—but there’s a big difference between "normal" neck pain and neck pain that could be a sign of something serious.
Most people develop neck pain after sleeping in an awkward way or having poor posture while sitting in front of a computer, Whitney Luke, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Brain and Spine Hospital, tells SELF.
“Normal pain is usually rated as a three or five on a pain scale of 10, is non-radiating, and localized to the tender muscles in the neck and upper back,” Michael Gordon, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, Calif., tells SELF. And this garden-variety neck pain usually feels worse when you’re active or at the end of the day, Flynn Rowan, M.D., an orthopedic spine surgeon at Indiana University Health in Indianapolis, tells SELF. According to the Mayo Clinic, mild to moderate neck pain is usually treated with home care and over-the-counter medications.
But if your neck pain also comes with numbness, loss of strength in your arms or hands, or shooting pains into your shoulder or down your arm, you need to see a doctor right away, Wellington Hsu, M.D., a spine surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, tells SELF. Neck pain that's accompanied by arm pain can also a sign that you may have a herniated disc or pinched nerve, he explains. If you experience any weakness in your hands or feel like your hands are clumsy, you may have a problem with your spinal cord, Dr. Hsu adds.
So, in the vast majority of cases, you'll be able to treat your neck pain with some basic self care. But any time you have really severe or persistent pain, you should get it checked out sooner rather than later.