Spinal fusion eliminates low back pain for multiple sclerosis patient
For Barb Goff, the symptoms were pretty alarming right from the start. First, she developed numbness in her right side. Before long, she added dizziness, fatigue, and mental confusion to the list. Her first thought was that maybe she had a pinched nerve. So she scheduled an office visit with her primary doctor.
“He told me I needed to lose weight and get a new mattress,” Barb remembers. “After a few weeks, I realized I needed another opinion. I thought maybe it was a sinus infection, so I scheduled a visit with an ENT. He recommended I get an MRI.”
Shortly after that, Barb heard the two words that would change the course of her life moving forward: multiple sclerosis.
“When I heard the words ‘multiple sclerosis,’ I was terrified,” Barb remembers. “I thought I’d rather have had a brain tumor, because at that time, I had no idea what MS was. Of course, once I educated myself, I became more accepting of the diagnosis, but I was still concerned about the possible symptoms I might experience and the impact they might have on my life.”
For years, Barb managed her symptoms with traditional therapies and regular visits with her family doctor. During that time, she took a job as a school bus driver and became a grandmother twice over. Her symptoms continued to change, and as they worsened, she added new therapies to her treatment routine, always trying to keep her pain within manageable levels so she could continue to work, play with her grandkids, swim in her pool, and do all the other things she loved to do.
Most of her painful symptoms were focused in her lower back, and at some point, those symptoms began to travel into her legs. By 2018, Barb was experiencing excruciating symptoms as her disease began irritating her sciatic nerve, the major nerve that travels from the lower back all the way down each leg.
“My lower back pain was taking a big toll on my life. In fact, before I saw Dr. Stanley, the pain was so bad, I was having difficulty with all sorts of everyday activities,” she says. “Even getting out of bed was painful, and it took me about an hour each morning before I could even pretend to move somewhat normally. I shuffled through the pain, day after day, until I could no longer bear it.
“I had spoken with my regular doctor first, and she said at that point, there was nothing she could do to relieve my pain. She recommended I schedule an appointment with Dr. Tom Stanley, an orthopedic spine surgeon — and that’s when things started to turn around.”
When Barb scheduled her first office visit with Dr. Stanley, it had been more than 20 years since her initial diagnosis. And by that time, doctor visits had become part of her regular routine. Looking back, she says her first visit with Dr. Stanley seemed pretty typical, and she wasn’t entirely confident her treatment or her results would be any different from what she’d already experienced. But — she was hopeful.
“At that visit, I had X-rays and other tests, and at first we tried prednisone shots to see if they would help my symptoms,” she recalls. “They did help — but instead of offering me long-term relief, the shots only relieved my pain for a few hours, and that was it. I was very disappointed.
“I went ahead and set up another appointment with Dr. Stanley to discuss other treatment options, but I never made it there,” she says. “Instead, I ended up going to the emergency room — I just couldn’t move anymore. I felt so low — I just didn’t know if I’d ever find a solution and how I was going to be able to cope with the pain.”
Then, Barb says, her course of treatment was pretty much decided by the outcome of one imaging test prescribed by one of the ER doctors.
“While I was in the ER, I had an MRI, and the results of that test made it abundantly clear that surgery was really my only option,” she says. “By that time, I was so tired of the pain and frustrated by the treatments I’d had, I was actually excited for it. I knew about the potential risks and that there was a small chance it might not have a positive effect on my symptoms, but I really felt pretty confident that having surgery would help my symptoms — and help me get back to a more normal life again.”
Dr. Stanley recommended a type of surgery called spinal fusion, a procedure that permanently joins together two or more vertebrae in one section of the spine. A lot of back pain, including sciatica, occurs when the spine bones compress or “pinch” nerves as they exit the spinal column. By immobilizing the section of the spine where compression is occurring, the nerves are protected, and that means painful symptoms in the back and all along the nerve pathway are eliminated.
Today, most spinal fusion surgery uses very small incisions for much faster healing and a lot less pain postoperatively. Plus, most fusion surgeries — Barb’s included — can be performed as outpatient procedures or with just a single overnight stay.
“On the day of the surgery, I was a little nervous, I guess. But overall, I was excited to have the procedure and to see how I felt afterward — I was really feeling pretty positive,” Barb remembers. “And when I came out of surgery, I was right — in fact, it turned out even better than I expected! My pain was completely gone — all of it. Of course, I had some discomfort from the surgery itself, but it was very manageable, and it cleared up pretty quickly as I healed. What’s more, almost all the numbness I’d had in my feet and lower legs was gone! I had expected a good outcome, but this was even better than I had hoped.”
It’s been about a year since Barb had her spinal fusion surgery with Dr. Stanley, and although she still has symptoms related to her MS, she no longer suffers from the debilitating back pain that kept her from enjoying so much of her life. For other women and men with MS, Barb says thinking “outside the box” can play an important role in finding the best way to manage pain and related symptoms.
“Even though I really hadn’t been thinking about surgery as a possible treatment option for my pain before seeing Dr. Stanley, I now feel surgery was definitely the best decision I could have made,” she says. “That initial office visit with Dr. Stanley really changed my life for the better, and I would highly recommend anyone who has MS and lower back pain to definitely schedule an evaluation and to have surgery if it’s recommended. It can be a real game changer.”