Eighteen holes of pain? Not anymore for some who undergo spinal fusion surgery

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Eighteen holes of pain. For some golfers, back problems destroy their game. But if they need surgery … there’s hope to get back on course.

The swing is smooth and fluid. The shots fly … straight and on target. Yet Jeff Kellermann’s effortless stroke – driven by generous rotation from his core – seems unlikely, considering this is what his spine looks like on x-ray. It’s called a spinal fusion. Before surgery, the discs in Jeff’s lower back were worn out, his vertebrae rubbing bone-on-bone – the result of ordinary wear and tear.

Dr Frank Phillips, Midwest Orthopedics at Rush surgeon: “Typically the discs are tall, white and bright like you see at these two levels. And we come to the bottom three discs you see the disc spaces are very narrowed and collapsed. As the wear out continues, you lose the stability of the spine so vertebrae can slide and move abnormally, and that causes pain and results in pinched nerves and nerve symptoms.”

Jeff Kellermann, spinal fusion patient: “It built up and got to the point where I was in such pain it took me 15 minutes to get out of bed in the morning. If I was playing golf there would be many times when I would take a swing and fall to my knees I was in such pain. And it got to the point it was so bad I made the decision to have the surgery.”

Midwest Orthopedics at Rush surgeon Frank Phillips removed the damaged discs and encased each level with a combination of synthetic and natural bone. The screws and rods held it all together as new bony growth fused the now fixed and stabilized joint.

Dr Phillips: “A lot of patients undergoing spinal fusion would ask me, ‘Will I be able to get back to golf? How long will it take? Will I be able to perform at the level I’m used to?’ And I never had a good answer.”

So he decided to track the results. He followed 40 patients – all recreational golfers who said the game was a significant motivation for surgery.

Dr Phillips: “What we found out was a pleasant surprise.”

Within 12 months of surgery, about 75% of patients were back playing the same amount of golf – or more -- as they had before the procedure. And 80 percent returned to or improved their handicap.

Dr Phillips: “At the fused level you do lose the motion and the rotation by design. Fortunately our bodies are very accommodating, and the discs around the fusion probably move a little more to accommodate.”

Those who underwent a less invasive fusion using smaller incisions and less muscle retraction had a better shot at returning to the game even sooner … and in better form.

Dr Phillips: “So sometimes you fuse a level, but to get there you really beat up the muscles. Then people have chronic muscle atrophy pain, and that’s a reason for failed back surgery. With the minimally invasive technique, that should be a much less frequent occurrence after fusion.”

Jeff Kellerman: “Six months to the day I was playing 18 holes of golf. They said I may lose as much as 15 percent range of motion, and I feel I’ve lost zero. I can do every single thing I’ve done before, full golf swing no hesitation. I feel it’s the best thing I ever did in my life.”

Dr Phillips says spinal fusion should be a last resort – after more conservative options like physical therapy or injections fail. And while Jeff’s results are impressive not every patient has the same experience. Much of the success depends on how hard you work – rigorous exercise and a real dedication to strengthening the core are all key.

To learn more go to www.rushortho.com