Experienced, skilled surgeon is critical in favorable outcome
CHICAGO—September 26, 2013— September’s Pain Awareness Month is drawing attention to chronic pain management. Some 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine– more than cancer, diabetes and heart disease combined. Still, there’s much debate over the best treatment to find relief.
An estimated 26 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 64 experience frequent back pain – most commonly in the lower back. They often require a multi-disciplinary approach for effective pain management. And despite the growing demand for non-surgical therapies, many patients significantly reduce their pain through spine surgery.
“We take a conservative approach, exhausting all non-operative treatments before considering surgery,” said Purnendu Gupta, MD, medical director of Chicago Spine Center, a program of Chicago Center for Orthopedics at Weiss Memorial Hospital. “But surgery proves to be very effective for the right patients.”
Chicagoan Janean McCurry, 50, is one of those patients. For the past decade, her low back pain became progressively worse, intensifying to the point where she couldn’t stand up straight when she got out of bed. “My back locked up, and I was in excruciating pain,” she said.
McCurry had been suffering with chronic sciatica – a painful nerve condition that causes weakness, numbness, or tingling in the leg. She also had spondylolisthesis, a condition in which a vertebra slips forward out of the proper position associated often times with significant spinal stenosis, resulting in nerve pressure and leg pain. She tried medication, physical therapy and epidural shots to alleviate the pain, but nothing worked. Her pain caused her to shuffle and drag her foot. Her limited mobility affected her mentally too.
“I was so depressed,” she added. “I became increasingly dependent on my family, especially my husband.”
McCurry knew surgery was the next step. But she was scared, especially about a long recovery. She knew she wouldn’t be able to bend, lift or twist for a long time in order to heal from spine surgery.
In May, Dr. Gupta performed a laminectomy – a surgical procedure that removes a portion of the vertebral bone to open up the spinal stenosis– and a spinal fusion to treat the spondylolisthesis.
“This surgery saved my life,” McCurry said. “I have my life back and with time I know it’s going to get better, not worse.” She can stand for longer periods of time and walk farther with each passing day. With time, she hopes to return to her more active lifestyle – swimming with her grandchildren, walking to the lakefront in her Rogers Park neighborhood and cycling. McCurry also plans to return to her work as a nanny. “I really miss those kids,” she said.
Not correcting back pain can be costly. Reports show chronic pain yields higher healthcare costs – as much as $635 billion a year – and impacts workplace productivity.
Jose Pabey, 58, a resident of Highland, Ind., had to take time off of work when his back pain got too severe, and now as he recovers from surgery. “My back problems are the result of wear and tear on my spine, most recently from heavy lifting on the job,” explained Pabey, who used to do a lot of bending, squatting, walking and standing at the steel mill where he worked.
Two years ago he said, “Life just caught up to me,” when he first noticed a different kind of pain, sciatica. His feet and toes were numb, which led to him dragging his leg. He tried physical therapy, and then epidural shots for about six months, but relief was temporary. “The pain became unbearable, so I had to do something,” he said. In addition to his sciatica, Pabey suffered from two collapsed discs, two herniated discs, spinal stenosis, and a slipped vertebra, spondylolisthesis.
“Mr. Pabey also required – a laminectomy and a spinal fusion,” said Dr. Gupta, who performs hundreds of spine surgeries a year and operated on Pabey in March. “It is important that patients like Mr. Pabey and Ms. McCurry have both the laminectomy to relieve that nerve pressure and spinal fusion to help stabilize the slippage.”
“I have some pain, but nothing compared to what I used to have,” Pabey said. His most noticeable improvement is his ability to walk a good distance. Within two weeks of the procedure, he was walking a mile. Within six weeks, he worked up to more than two miles. He now walks five miles three times a week.
“(Surgery) is the best thing I did,” Pabey added. Pabey and McCurry advise chronic pain sufferers to consider surgery too when they’ve exhausted other treatment options. But they both strongly suggest getting the necessary background on the surgeon before stepping into the operating room. “Do your research on surgeons, and do it!” Pabey said. “Dr. Gupta is the best.” McCurry added, “Dr. Gupta has experience, a quiet confidence and kind demeanor.”
For more information on pain management and spine surgery, call the Chicago Spine Center at Weiss at (773) 564-SPINE.
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