For the last four years, Tyler Johnson hasn't been able to sleep on his stomach. He's been dealing with a neck injury that's prevented him from doing so.
Johnson would feel it on some days and not-so-much on others, but it eventually got to a point where he actually convinced himself that everything was normal when, in fact, it wasn't. That all changed in early December when he underwent artificial disc replacement surgery (ADR).
Now? Johnson feels brand new.
"It's honestly crazy," Johnson said before Sunday's game against his former Tampa Bay Lightning team. "I don't wake up in the morning with a stiff neck anymore so I'm pretty happy about it."
Johnson estimates the injury originally happened sometime in 2017 or 2018. Fast-forward to this past preseason and he took a hit in a game "that made it a little bit worse."
And then, on Oct. 29, 2021 against Carolina, everything came to a head when Hurricanes forward Vincent Trocheck shoved Johnson from behind and right into Martin Necas in an awkward-looking fall. Johnson's neck pressed up against Necas' back, and he didn't return with what the team later called "neck stiffness."
Well, it turned out to be more than that.
"I had numbness and tingling in my arm for about a month without it going away," Johnson said. "So it felt like I needed to do something for it."
After gathering opinions from many different doctors, Johnson elected to have ADR surgery instead of the fusion, which is a more proven procedure.
Jack Eichel was the first player in NHL history to undergo the ADR surgery — three weeks before Johnson — and it's a big reason why he's no longer with the Buffalo Sabres. He was pushing to do it for a while and the Sabres doctors didn't give him the greenlight to do so.
The Blackhawks had zero objections, and the fact Johnson was able to see Eichel pave the way for that type of procedure certainly made him more comfortable in deciding he should do it, too.
"I don't know if it would have changed anything, but I guess it really did help me know that he's done a lot more research than I did," Johnson responded when asked if he would've gone this route if Eichel didn't. "He spent roughly a year or whatnot learning about it. It made me feel a little bit better in that sense."
And it's a good thing Johnson did choose the ADR because of the severity of the injury.
"When [the doctor] went in, he said it was way worse than they even thought it was," Johnson said. "It was not going to be able to come back on its own; we had to do something. I'm fortunate that I got the support I needed and was able to do it."
There were also benefits in going with the ADR route as opposed to the fusion, in Johnson's eyes.
"The road to recovery after [the fusion], that's a lot harder," Johnson said. "I would have been done all this year for sure, likely a lot into the summer as well. And then who knows what I would have felt like next year?
"Being as young as I am you're looking at another fusion, or even two fusions the rest of your life. That was something that kind of stuck with me, that I didn't want to keep having that problem. If you do the ADR there's a chance you never have to mess with it again, or if something does happen you can always still go the fusion route, but you can't go vice versa."
Johnson is finally back in Chicago's lineup after a three-month recovery and feels even better than he did before.
"Physically, I feel great," Johnson said. "I don't have anything that I would consider a setback or limitations or anything like that. Obviously spending that much time away from the game is tough mentally, trying to get back into it a little bit as far as decision making and things like that. I've never spent that much time away from the ice … it's the longest I've ever been off.
"But rehab was going really great here. They had me on the ice every day, so that was great. But you can't really replicate that game. Still trying to get back into it a little bit. Trying to learn as things go and still trying to learn systems a little bit. It's still new to me. It's a work in progress."