The first time I remember my back hurting was shoveling snow as a child in Wisconsin. I must have been 8 years old. My attempts to end my snow shoveling career were unsuccessful. My parents were not impressed with my lament, “But it hurts my back!”... Luckily I survived many snowy winters in Wisconsin, back pain and all.
Years later, as a fellow in spine surgery, I had severe neck pain aggravated by hours of craning my neck awkwardly to complete spine surgery (irony). A MRI revealed a degenerative disc with spurs at C5-C6. I was horrified by the prospect of starting a career with a disabling condition related to my job. Thankfully, I was able to modify my neck position by using an operative microscope while doing surgery. By changing my neck angle, I was able to work years with minimal neck pain.
Years later, after more birthdays 🎂, my neck pain progressed and starting causing nerve pain in my dominant right arm. After trying non-surgical treatments, my symptoms were getting worse. A new MRI now showed not only worsening of my C5-C6, but now spurs at C3-C4 and C4-C5. I choose to have a neck fusion called Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion (ACDF). After a normal recovery, my arm pain disappeared and my neck felt better than ever.
As a Spine Surgeon who has had spine surgery myself, I feel I have empathy for what my patients go through. It is very humbling to go under the knife. We are at our most vulnerable going into surgery. I know those feelings and can better counsel my patients considering surgery. I also know what recovery is like and can better relate to my patient’s concerns and questions.
As far as my low back pain, I survived many feet of Wisconsin snow and lived relatively back pain free until my 40’s when it reared its ugly head again. Standing for many hours during surgery made my back tighten-up and hurt. Driving in a car was uncomfortable. Just putting on pants and shoes became a chore. I decided to do something about this and starting practicing yoga. The combination of stretching and core strengthening eliminated 75% of my pain and allowed me to live and work without further treatment.
When I finally got an X-ray and MRI done on my back, I discovered that I had a condition called Lumbar Hyperlordosis. While my discs are healthy, my increased sway-back puts increased pressure on the joints (facet joints) connecting the lumbar vertebrae. This loading of the facet joints can be painful if I don’t do my back exercises. I use my personal experience to counsel my patients on treating their backs with exercise to avoid use of medications and even surgery. I also preach good nutrition as a way to fight pain. A typical American diet can cause inflammation, the root cause of all pain. By following an anti-inflammatory diet, back pain can be reduced naturally.
As a spine specialist it is important to have first hand experience with back pain. As a long time back pain sufferer, I feel your pain and more importantly, I have your back!