Spinal tap


My husband, Don, had been experiencing lower back pain and pain in his right leg for quite a while, which was limiting his ability to walk – or even stand – for any length of time. He had tried everything: yoga, physical therapy, steroid injections. He’d even had a revision of an 18-year-old hip replacement that was starting to fail, hoping that it might also alleviate some of his back pain. Unfortunately, he experienced little relief from any of it!

We love to travel, and on our last several cruises, Don rented a scooter to give his back a break. However, on our trip to Amsterdam last spring, the uneven sidewalks and cobblestone streets meant the scooter was a no-go and Don was forced to explore the city under his own steam. The poor guy could barely make it from one café to the next. If he didn’t do something about his back soon, we knew he might end up in a wheelchair, and neither of us wanted that.

Doing the homework. A MRI revealed that Don had degenerative scoliosis (which we knew about) and lumbar spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis is an abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal, which puts pressure on nerves and can cause pain not only in the back but also the legs and feet. Spinal fusion surgery, which connects the vertebrae to prevent motion between them (in his case, quite a few of them: T11 to S1!) and stretching of the nerves, was his last resort.

Before deciding to go through with the fusion surgery, Don consulted a number of websites and stalked spinal fusion chatrooms. We also asked the neurosurgeon to connect us with one of his fusion patients to learn about someone’s experience firsthand. Through this due diligence, we heard a lot of good but almost as much bad. We decided that even partial success – or putting a dent in Don’s pain – was a whole lot better than maintaining the status quo.

It’s not easy. The surgery was long. Six hours in fact. While the surgeon told us upfront that he wouldn’t be able to do much to straighten the severe curve in Don’s spine, he was able to successfully address the stenosis. What he didn’t prepare Don for was the degree of post-op pain he’d experience. While Don has had a number of complicated orthopedic surgeries in the past and is no stranger to surgical pain, the discomfort from the spinal fusion trumped all his previous surgeries. The relentless throbbing and muscle spasming extended his hospital stay to a full week while the staff tried to get his pain under control. It also left him with no appetite and feeling defeated, which was no way to start his arduous road to recovery.

Keep pushing. One of the keys to a successful spinal fusion outcome is moving frequently (ideally every hour) and walking several times a day. Once the team got Don on the right cocktail of pain and nerve meds and muscle relaxers, his appetite and attitude improved significantly, and he was able to start doing the work. At first, he did laps around the house, then the alley behind our townhouse and soon, he was walking the neighborhood. With the increased movement, he quickly progressed from needing help getting in and out of bed, dressing and showering to doing just about everything on his own. And the shiny, fire-engine red rollator walker that Don had purchased right after his surgery (if he was going to use a walker, it was at least going to be a hot one!) was relegated to the spare bedroom because he had graduated to a cane within weeks. He is still limited by his back precautions: no bending, lifting or twisting (BLTs); however, those restrictions won’t last forever.

So far, so good! While ringing in the New Year at a downtown mall this year, Don couldn’t even make it from our hotel to a restaurant half a block away without stopping to lean and stretch. About seven weeks into his recovery, he can now walk a little over a mile with very little discomfort (he typically logs two to three miles per day total). The initial tradeoff has been some discomfort sitting, but we’re told that it shouldn’t persist.

At the end of April, we have a Danube River cruise scheduled, which will really put his new-and-improved back to the test. By that point, I’m fully prepared for him to leave me in the dust!

NOTE: This represents one patient’s experiences. Not every spinal fusion patient will have exactly the same response and outcome. Please consult your physician for more information.

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