Sinus Surgery, An Alternative for Better Breathing

For those of you suffering from chronic sinusitis, sometimes you have to take drastic measures. Given my allergies to dust mites and pollen, my breathing and sinuses have been impacted significantly over the last several years. A regimen of allergy shots, sinus rinses, antihistamines and more seemed to just keep things in check but I was still suffering. Nights spent coughing, constant sinus pressure and headaches made it difficult to get rest and sleep comfortably. A visit to my allergist and primary physician confirmed that I was a candidate for sinus surgery, for better or worse.

My referral to Dr. Dennis over at Capitol ENT in Raleigh was great. Dr. Dennis has a great bedside manner and clearly and concisely answered all my questions about endoscopic sinus surgery. An MRI of my sinus cavities showed significant blockage and fluids trapped within, no surprise given my suffering. And Dr. Dennis convinced me that surgery would be highly likely to provide significant relief. While I’m not a big fan of surgery, the constant stress of living in an impaired condition and dealing with regular bouts of sinus infections convinced me to take a leap of faith and schedule the surgery. I really didn’t know what I was in for but had my fingers crossed, gosh knows it certainly couldn’t get worse.

While the endoscopic surgery is out-patient, you do undergo full anesthesia. I had to get to the hospital early, about 6am. After going through a TON of paperwork I get brought over to pre-op and a team of nurses. Jump into a johnny, put on some little socks with rubber grips (just like a toddler!) and I’m ready to roll. An EKG, some blood gets taken out, a quick visit from my surgeon and then I get some pre-anesthesia to kick off the surgery. I’m wheeled into the surgery room and vaguely remember some more names before it’s lights out, buh-bye! Next thing you know I wake up in post-op with a bunch of gauze wrapped under my nose. I wasn’t feeling too bad at this point since the anesthesia was still in effect. A friend shows up to pick me up, they insist on having a relative or roommate sign off that they will watch you overnight!

We pick up some post operation medications for the recuperation, some antibiotics and Vicodin pain-killers. The main goal is to let your sinuses heal up with a minimum of scarring and allow yourself to sleep properly. I get home only half-awake, glad the surgery was over and I’m home. Now here’s where the whole process starts getting ugly and I may get a bit graphic so read on only if you want the gory details…

Now I do pride myself on my threshold for physical pain. I’ve gone under the knife three other times for knee re-constructions, I’ve broken both wrists and torn up ligaments in both ankles, so I like to think I can tough things out. The challenge with sinus surgery is that post-surgery, they place two plastic splints in each nostril sutured to the inside of your nose. Think of a rolled up piece of thin-sheet plastic about 1″ x 2″ jammed up your shnozz! Now I’ve got a pretty big nose so it’s no problem getting it up there. However in addition to the overall pain you’re feeling post-surgery (turbinate reduction, scraping out the sinus cavities, straightening out the septum, etc), you have a lot of drainage coming out of said nose. We’re talking mucus and blood in about equal amounts, mostly blood at first. I was sent home with a box of gauze and tape, which was quickly gone within 24 hours. Seriously, you’re constantly “draining” and let’s just say you’re one hot mess during the recuperation period. Don’t plan on going out anytime soon unless you can deal with some odd glances! Over time that drainage of mucus and other fluids tends to solidify and well, block things up. Eventually you’ll have problems breathing due to that blockage and need to become a total mouth-breather. NOT a pretty sight and definitely not comfortable.

Over the first 72 hours of recovery, between changing the bandages, not being able to breathe, and the pain, I managed on average maybe 5 hours of fitful sleep a night. The vicodin, while effective as a pain-killer, caused me anxiety and light delusions. Combined with my claustrophobia and the blockage in my nose, it was a VERY uncomfortable three days. I found myself getting paranoid over the concern that I had done irreparable damage to my sinuses. That I would never breathe freely again. And you know what? When you can’t breathe properly, you can’t taste either. I ate just for sustenance and that meant I ate infrequently. I lost six lbs in five days after the operation. Let’s just say that in addition to sinus surgery, you’re getting an involuntary diet! My nights were spent moving from bedroom to couch to bed and I found that sleeping while seated was my best option. I’d wake up to a dry mouth, chapped lips and coughing as a full-time mouth-breather. And I coughed up some stuff that you could NOT imagine, ugh.

After three days the pain receded quite a bit but the nasal blockage and labored breathing increases. All the drainage does not make it out of your nose meaning your swollen nasal cavities are not working the way they’re supposed to. My first post-operation check-up was six days after surgery and I have NEVER looked forward so much to that visit because relief was in store. My check-up consisted of removing those infernal nasal splints and some suction to remove dried mucus (i.e. snot) that had blocked up my breathing. A quick scope up the nose showed that the surgery had gone well and healing was on course. Two weeks later I’m back for another check-up, some more shnozz suctioning and another look-see up my nose and thankfully, things looked good. The drainage had pretty much stopped at this point and time and my sense of taste was slowly returning (about 50% back). But as a foodie I was relieved to be able to finally taste anything beyond salty and sweet. And losing 10 lbs allowed me to go hog-wild eating out once I got my taste back. One final visit with Dr. Dennis and I’m finally on my own. He tells me that recovery and recuperation from the sinus surgery will continue for a year post-surgery and that things will get better.

So now that I’ve scared you with my tales of blood, snot and tears, what’s the outcome? On the plus side I’m breathing better than I ever have for years. Sinus issues sneak up on you over time and I hadn’t realized how badly I was feeling until the surgery was complete. I found myself sleeping on my side and stomach for the first time in years since I could now breathe properly. My sleep seemed deeper and I woke up with more energy given the increased air capacity. And while I used to get serious sinus infections every three months, it’s been over nine months since my last serious infection. I still get some minor sinus headaches and ears popping but it is far more manageable than it’s ever been.

While the description I gave you of my ordeal is pretty ugly and I wouldn’t wish it on my worse enemy, the sinus surgery was totally worth it since I’m pretty sure the benefits will continue on for years. Better breathing, lessened sinus infections with the potential of reducing snoring and possibly even improving my blood pressure. Yes your sinuses and air intake are sort of critical to life. My doctor said I was probably a sinus severity level of 7 or 8 on a scale of 1 to 10 so surgery was really necessary. And it may be necessary at some point and time to go back for MORE sinus surgery if problems re-occur. But I really hope that’s not the case given what I know about the process today. All in all the surgery was totally worthwhile. Just make sure you tried all the other maintenance and treatments before opting for this invasive procedure. And make sure you get a great ENT surgeon since your life and quality of life is truly in their skilled hands. Because I for one, will never take my breathing for granted again. You can never even imagine how critical healthy sinuses are for daily life and living, so if sinus surgery calls just do it! Just make sure you stock up on lots of gauze and tape for your upcoming encounter with Mr. Mucus. I’ve warned you…

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