OK, I have been stuck wearing a cervical collar (hard neck brace) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, since early September 2006! Yes, 8 months... and counting. My doc won't let me out of it for at least another month. As a possible world-record holder for wearing a neck brace, I've compiled a few tips to help you cope effectively while wearing a cervical collar yourself.
How did I get so lucky? Long story - I had a major anterior/posterior fusion from C2 to T1, which takes a long time to heal. Also, I have Marfan Syndrome, which means my spine can't hold itself up very well (owing to weak ligaments). Lucky me.. the collar is my new best friend.
1. Before you leave the hospital, have someone show you and your caretaker (hubby, etc.) how to use the collar. How does it open/close? (It may be easier to open only one side.) Where does each pad go? How do you make the collar tighter or looser, or sit higher or lower on your neck? How do you clean it?
2. Practice moving around while you wear the collar--no twisting, no bending. When we need to look at something off to the side, we all twist our heads left or right, rather than turn our entire body. Practice looking left and right by moving your entire body, moving from the hip rather than the spine. Think about military-style movements (turn 90 degrees at a time). Also practice bending your knees to move your body down (like to pick something up off the floor). Bending from your neck/shoulders/chest/waist may not feel good after your surgery.
3. Adjust your dressing/bathing routine. Wear button-down or zip-up shirts and sweaters, slip on shoes, and pull-on pants. Dress in front of a mirror so you can see what your fingers are doing. And consider a team-based approach for bathing and hair washing... it can be easier to have someone else take your collar on and off for you, and towel-dry your hair for you. At first, you might even need someone to help you step in and out of the shower/tub.
4. Tell someone if you have TMJ problems or are super-prone to headaches. The collar pushes up against your jaw, which can give you tension headaches and/or MAJOR TMJ problems.
- Purchase one or more extra sets of pads. Eating with a collar on is really tricky, and may make a mess on your chin pad. It's nice to be able to change it when it gets dirty. If you will be wearing the collar during hot summer months, definitely get extra sets of pads. The collar is hot to wear, and you will sweat onto it. Nasty.
- You may be able to hand-wash your collar's pads with a mild soap like Cetaphil. Look at the instructions that came with your collar (mine came with a "Patient's Guide" booklet) and follow the process the manufacturer recommends. When I had my Miami J collar, I would wash the pads about once a week in cool water using Cetaphil face soap.
- It's hard to look down.. so plan to either push your dining chair back or move your dinner plate farther away from you.
- Consider tucking a napkin under chin (between your chin and the collar) when you eat. Eating with a collar on can be messy!
- Say hello to open-face sandwiches. You can’t open your mouth fully with a collar on (it restricts some of the motion of your lower jaw), so massive burgers and cheese steaks will require some knife and fork actioin.
Grooming and Beauty:
- Wax your legs before the collar is on. You aren’t going to feel like shaving them anytime soon (after the surgery). Cut your toenails, too.
- Cut your hair short, or even give it the GI Jane buzz-cut look. You aren’t going to be able to wash your hair for awhile. And it’s easier to wear the collar without hair getting in the way.
- Say goodbye to makeup and to doing any kind of skincare for your lower cheeks and chin/jawline area. The collar is going to be in the way.
- Say hello to premoistened face washing wipes. My favorite is Olay Daily Facials Express Wet Cleansing Cloths, Sensitive Skin, Fragrance Free. Washing your face with a standard soap and water routine can give you wet, soggy pads. These wipes are wet enough to clean with but not so wet as to drip down your face.
- Consider using a super-lightweight, super-absorbent towel to dry your hair, face, and neck. You won't want to put a normal, heavy towel or washcloth on/around your head. It could hurt or just feel uncomfortable. I purchased a microfiber hair drying towel and love using it (I bought an Aquis "Diva Dryer" Hair Towel in pink. Ooh la la.). I will probably never switch back to drying my hair with a normal towel!
- Say goodbye to your peripheral awareness. You have to turn your entire body to look left or right. It’s exhausting. It's easier for a while to look straight ahead and not worry about what's to the left or right.
- Say goodbye to looking straight down, or looking up high (like the top shelf at the grocery). Forget Bed Bath and Beyond and any other big box store with super-high shelves.
- Be really careful walking down steps. You can’t look down to see where you are putting your feet (especially if you wear glasses).
- Don't drive. It's very difficult.
- Use folded-up or rolled-up towels, blankets, etc. to stabilize your body in a comfortable position. Or you can buy a neckroll type pillow to sleep on. I preferred using rolled-up towels or folded-up blankets because they adjust more than a foam pillow.
Some good news: the collar will get you some much-needed help when you are out in public. People will hold doors open, sales clerks will offer to get things down from high shelves for you, etc. Also, if doors aren't opened for you, learn to look for the blue handicapped door access buttons. You will find them in many places... malls, etc.