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Paul’s Story: Cyclist Back in the Saddle After Pinched Nerve

Contributor Sarah Koonce, PA-C
9 minute read

When you’re accustomed to being as physically active as Paul Curley, 67, weeks of downtime can feel like a devastating setback. A resident of Taunton, Massachusetts and a lifelong competitive cyclist, Paul has traveled the U.S. and around the world.

He’s biked through exotic places like the Czech Republic, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and through the Gobi Desert in China and Mongolia. So when he began to experience nerve pain while biking during a recent trip to Florida, it was hard for him not to fall into despair.

“I started to have nerve pain from a pinched nerve between my C5 and C6 vertebrae, which was basically paralyzing my left arm,” he recalls. “I was immediately off the bike, and even when I just took a walk to try to get some movement, I’d have to do most of that walk with my left arm straight up in the air. It was the only way I could relieve the pain enough to do anything, really.”

From a Florida urgent care to the Newton-Wellesley Hospital Spine Center

Paul suffered for about 4 weeks with his pain, eventually visiting an urgent care in St. Petersburg. A doctor ordered an x-ray of Paul’s neck and upper back and diagnosed him with a pinched nerve. Upon returning to Taunton, he visited the Newton-Wellesley Hospital Spine Center.

Next-day spine evaluation spares weeks of more pain

Spine Center navigator Sarah Koonce, PA-C, met with Paul the next day.

“We created the Spine Center navigation program because there was a need for rapid patient access,” says Sarah. “It's designed for patients with acute or chronic pain flare-ups — the goal of navigation is to get the patient in quickly and then triage them to the most appropriate specialist for their condition. I'm in this role because I have a hybrid background in spine surgery, pain management, and physiatry.”

All these disciplines are critical at the Spine Center, and the breadth of her experience gives Sarah a keen eye for which way to steer a new patient.

“As an advanced practice navigator, I see the patient and I evaluate their condition, then I order the appropriate imaging and manage acute symptoms with medications and strategies. I facilitate rapid access to physical therapy, and if they already have imaging, I can perform trigger point injections and/or order a spinal injection, depending on their need.”

Sarah reviewed Paul’s imaging from Florida and did further, more comprehensive scans of Paul’s spine, including an MRI. This helped her confirm the original diagnosis and help plan the best path forward for his rehabilitation.

“I prescribed medications and recommended physical therapy for the pinched nerve in his neck,” she says.

I've felt for many weeks now that I've been 100% physically fit. Everything's been working well. No pain anywhere. Everything feels good.

Paul Curley
Newton-Wellesley Hospital Pain and Spine Center Patient

COVID-19 and the cost of inactivity

The exact cause of Paul’s injury wasn’t known, but he attributes some blame to the COVID-19 pandemic, both to the virus itself and the ensuing period of inactivity due to general social restrictions.

“COVID came at a very bad time for me personally,” he recalls. “There was a lot of downtime, and then just when things were starting to come back, I contracted it, and I haven’t been the same since. It wasn’t necessarily the COVID — it could have just been the break that COVID caused where, for a number of months, I went without competition. And that made a big difference.”

Now, however, he feels he’s back in top form after his recent rehab and is always looking forward to his next ride.

“I’ve maintained my exercises, my stretching, all summer long,” he says. “And I’ve felt for many weeks now that I’ve been 100% physically fit. Everything’s been working well. No pain anywhere. Everything feels good. And I’m racing nationally at a pretty high level and my results are decent, so I’ve got no complaints right now.”

Rehab makes a return to competition possible

Paul competes in Cyclo-cross, a combination of mountain biking and road racing that culminates with a national championship in Louisville, Kentucky.

Whether or not Paul makes it to Louisville, he still has the mentality of a lifelong competitor. And after his successful treatment, he’ll be out on the bike several times a week no matter what.

Sarah Koonce, PA-C


Spine Center Navigator