Patient Story: Cynthia & Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery

Did you know spine surgery can now be done with only a small incision? Minimally invasive spine surgery is a relatively new set of techniques that has opened up surgery as an option for people who might otherwise have continued to suffer without surgery.

Patients often have the preconceived notion that spinal surgery will put them in bed and unable to walk for a long period of time. The fact is most spinal surgery does not lead to such a disabled state. And with minimally invasive surgery, patients can get back on their feet, out the hospital, and back to their normal routine faster than they’d ever have thought possible.

Cynthia Burnett is a great example of a patient who’s had minimally invasive spine surgery at Emory with excellent the results. In 2008, 56-year-old Cynthia Burnett woke up one day with excruciating nerve pain down her leg. Over the next two years, she suffered with this pain, despite multiple epidural injections. The pain just would not go away, even with the best non-operative treatment. Cynthia said she felt as if she’d aged 10 years. Her daughter recommended she come to Emory, where Cynthia saw one of our physiatrists, a nonsurgical physician who specializes in diagnosing and treating spine pain. He diagnosed a spinal stenosis (nerve pinch) and a slippage of one of her vertebrae on another. After careful analysis and discussions of options, she was told she’d be a good candidate for surgery. That’s when Cynthia came to me to discuss the surgical option.

At first, Cynthia didn’t want surgery. She said later, “My big concern about having surgery was the invasiveness. I’m healthy. I don’t go to the doctor very much. I haven’t been very sick. I just really didn’t want to choose to go under the knife.”

While not all cases can be treated with minimally invasive techniques, Cynthia was a great candidate for minimally invasive surgery. If this had not been the case, we could have used a traditional surgical technique with good results. But it would have required using, a relatively large incision to visualize the problem areas of the spine, thus a longer recovery time.

VIDEO: Cynthia’s Story of Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery

Instead, with Cynthia, we used highly specialized retractors that are placed through small incisions with X-ray guidance to minimize the soft tissue damage. Through these small incisions, the spinal nerves were decompressed (“unpinched”), and the slipped vertebra was stabilized with a spinal fusion procedure. The factors that enabled me to do this include advanced surgical instruments, advanced imaging systems (three-dimensional computer-guided navigation), and years of surgical experience. These things lead to surgical results that are safer, less invasive, and more reliable than ever before.

Cynthia had the surgery December 16, 2010. Afterward, she said, “It was amazing to me how easy it was to walk around, and my nerve pain was gone immediately.” Cynthia also said, “It’s amazing to think they could do that with the small incision that I have. I wish I had done it years ago. And I’ve already told other people who are in pain, you need to go.”  She was truly thrilled. At Emory, our goal is to get patients back to health as quickly as possible. That’s what minimally invasive surgery is all about.

Have you had minimally invasive spine surgery, or would you like to learn more about minimally invasive spine surgery at Emory? We welcome your questions and feedback in the comments section below.

Dr. Tim Yoon, spine surgeonAbout S. Tim Yoon, MD:
S. Tim Yoon, MD, PhD, specializes in minimally invasive surgery and is assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and chief of Orthopedics at the Veterans Administration Medical Center at Atlanta. He is board certified in orthopedic surgery. Dr. Yoon started practicing at Emory in 2000.

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