Fire Chief back in action after cervical disc replacement

Brian Bressner, 39, Chief of the Ottawa, IL Fire Department, got an emergency call last year to rescue the driver of a tractor that had rolled over into a 30-foot embankment. He and his crew rushed to the site and expertly used all the tools available to extract the driver, including hydraulics and a rope rescue bag.

While lifting the heavy rope bag from the firetruck, Bressner felt something painful in the left side of his neck. Because he had mostly used his left arm to pull the bag, he assumed he had done something to his shoulder. His pain felt muscle-related, or like the feel of a migraine in his shoulder and neck area.

“The pain didn’t subside at all over time, and I had to take more and more days off work,” Bressner explains. “Unfortunately, I’m really bad at not doing anything, so I went to a ‘dark place’ during this time. I really needed to get back to being active again.”

Being active for Bressner meant helping with a family corn and soybean farm, working out, and performing his job.

Getting a diagnosis

Assuming that he was experiencing a shoulder injury, like a torn biceps tendon, Bressner finally visited his general practitioner who ordered an MRI of his shoulder and neck. The MRI showed that he had a herniated disc in level C6-7 of his cervical (neck) spine. The source of his pain was clearly not in his shoulder.

His doctor referred him to a local pain management specialist who injected his neck. On Bressner’s drive home from the pain specialist’s office, he remembers feeling no relief. Nor did he feel better after several successive injections. “It was disappointing to me that he kept giving me more injections, so I decided to see a local spine doctor,” Bressner says.

The spine doctor reviewed Bressner’s MRI and recommended he undergo physical therapy and visit the same pain management specialist he had already been to. Frustrated, Bressner took to the internet to research spine surgeons in the Chicago area. He was pleased to learn about Dr. Gregory Lopez, who sees patients in the Midwest Orthopaedics at RUSH Naperville office, close to his home. He liked that the practice is ranked among the top ten in the nation.

Finding the right solution

He scheduled a visit with Dr. Lopez who ordered another MRI right away. Based on Bressner’s imaging and learning about his highly active profession and lifestyle, Dr. Lopez recommended cervical disc replacement as his best course of treatment to permanently be pain-free.

“I had never heard of this procedure, so I was very interested to hear what it entailed,” Bressner says.

Why the cervical disc replacement made sense

Dr. Lopez explained the spine’s anatomy and how the cervical discs cushion each vertebra in the neck and provide its range of motion. He also explained that the cervical spine forms a protective tunnel for the spinal cord to pass through which contains nerves that supply the upper extremities with sensation and movement.

In a cervical disc replacement surgery, Dr. Lopez explained how he would remove the damaged disc that was compressing the nerve and replace it with an artificial disc, in effect providing the ‘shock absorber’ between the affected vertebrae. He mentioned that before this procedure was approved, the vertebrae above and below the problem area were fused together which reduced mobility in the neck.

“Mr. Bressner leads an active life and has a physically demanding job,” Dr. Lopez explains. “A fusion operation would decrease motion in his neck and is not ideal for someone who is still very active. The cervical disc replacement allows for motion that is like a healthy disc, and ideally decreases his chance of arthritis above and below the injured level. With newer techniques like these, we can perform these surgeries safely in outpatient centers, allowing for a quick return to normal life.” 

And the surgery went exactly as Dr. Lopez explained. “I felt no pain immediately after surgery and couldn’t believe how my life changed after one 45-minute procedure,” Bressner says.

Chief Bressner is now back to performing his job with no pain and doing all the activities he loves, including full-body weightlifting, golf, coaching baseball, and regular maintenance of the firehouse. He is grateful to Dr. Lopez for improving both his work and personal life.

If you would like to schedule an appointment with Dr. Gregory Lopez to discuss your neck or back pain, please visit or call 877-632-6637.