When it comes to spinal disorders, there’s good news for the weekend warrior who enjoys vigorous athletic training and competitive sports activities. Being in great physical shape plays a large role both in your recovery and getting you back to an active lifestyle.
Joann Pope, one of my current patients, has an impressive athletic resume. She completed the half Ironman in Panama City, Florida, 21 times straight. She qualified for the world-famous Hawaiian Ironman seven times and finished four times. But two years ago, at the age of 74, her back started hurting and she had to stop racing due to lumbar spinal stenosis.
Lumbar spinal stenosis is a degenerative condition that causes a narrowing of the spinal column in the lower back, known as the lumbar area. This narrowing occurs when the growth of bone or tissue or both reduces the size of the openings in the spinal bones. This narrowing can squeeze and irritate the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord. It can also squeeze and irritate the spinal cord itself, causing pain, numbness, or weakness, most often in the legs, feet, and buttocks.
You might think that the physical stress of being a triathlete took its toll on Joann’s back, but that isn’t the case. In fact, if she hadn’t been in such great shape, her spine might have begun degenerating long before it did. For more than 20 years, Joann has been running, biking, and swimming. She was 47 when she started running, back in 1984. After she ran the Boston Marathon, her daughter talked her into doing a triathlon, the ultimate endurance test – a grueling three-part race with no stops.
So, thanks to her level of fitness, it’s as if Joann has the body of someone 20 years younger. Despite her active lifestyle , the lumbar stenosis progressed, and Joann’s pain, which came on slowly, continued to get worse.
Before Joann came to see me, she’d been experiencing lower back pain for a year. To address it, she’d been taking pain pills twice a day and was undergoing physical therapy, the first line of defense for lumbar stenosis. But when therapy didn’t ease her pain, her physical therapist told her she needed to see a surgeon. She chose to come to the Emory Orthopaedics & Spine Center.
In July of 2010, I performed a lumbar laminectomy and fusion on Joann. This procedure, also called a decompression, relieves pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerve by widening the spinal canal. In Joann’s case, I removed the portion of the bony roof of the spine, or lamina, that was pressing on her lumbar nerves. Then I fused the two lowest lumbar vertebra, L4 and L5, with screws. When she woke up, the pain she had before surgery was gone.
Because Joann had been in such great physical shape before the surgery, she recovered rapidly and was swimming and walking again quickly. Now she’s walking two miles a day and is working up to getting back on her bike. Joann remains pain free and plans to go back to racing.
Have you had a lumbar laminectomy, or would you like to learn how spine surgery at Emory can get you back to the active life you enjoy? We welcome your questions and feedback in the comments section below.
About S. Tim Yoon, MD:
S. Tim Yoon, MD, PhD, specializes in minimally invasive surgery and cervical spine surgery. He is board certified in orthopedic surgery. Dr. Yoon started practicing at Emory in 2000.