Hugh H Living Without Pain after Spine Surgery: Read Hugh's Story

“I knew right away the surgery was successful and I'd be able to get back on track with my life.”

Back pain is a common ailment these days. Approximately 75 to 85 percent of Americans complain of back pain interfering with their daily routine sometime in their lives.

While injuries and shorter-term back pain are a problem, many suffer from pain lasting more than three to six months. This type of pain is categorized as chronic and can lead to a lowered quality of life and affect activities of daily living.

Meet Hugh Havens

Ewing resident Hugh Havens describes his former self as “grumpy and miserable.” Two years ago, the 42-year-old had chronic back pain that kept him from enjoying his favorite activities such as skiing, camping and especially playing with his young children.

Havens was injured in a fall at his job as a mechanic at a waste water treatment facility. After several months, Havens' pain had only worsened and by the fall of 2006, it became unbearable.

That's when Havens discussed the option of an anterior approach spinal fusion with Dr. Levine. “For me, it was the only thing to do. I was taking medication I didn't want to take to get through the day. I just thought, there has to be a better way,” says Havens.

After his surgery in November 2006, Havens felt the difference immediately. “I had pain and I was uncomfortable, but it was from having the surgery. The pain wasn't shooting down my legs anymore,” he says.

“I knew right away the surgery was successful and I'd be able to get back on track with my life.”

Havens completed physical therapy and by the fall of 2007, was returning to his favorite activities. In March, Havens took to the slopes in a unique fashion going helicopter skiing. “I hadn't been on skis in years because of my injury. I finally felt free.”

Treatments for chronic back pain vary by the degree and severity of the condition or injury a person has sustained. For some people, spine surgery is the best answer.

An anterior approach spinal fusion is a surgery often performed to correct serious degenerative disk conditions, often responsible for chronic back pain. In this type of surgery, the spine is accessed from the front of the body.

Marc J. Levine, MD, director of RWJ Hamilton's spine surgery program says, “The anterior approach is advantageous because it doesn't disrupt the muscles of the spine and offers a reduced risk of nerve damage compared to more traditional posterior procedures.”

According to Dr. Levine, most of his patients who opt for this surgery are between 30 and 60 years old and have lived with chronic back pain for more than six months to a year.

“Back pain can greatly affect everyday function. These patients are people who would otherwise be active if not for the pain, and have had a lowered quality of life for an extended period of time,” he says.

The Team Approach

To greatly reduce the risk of the anterior surgery, the orthopedic surgeon often teams up with a general or vascular surgeon to access the spine from the front.

“This type of surgery should be performed by an experienced spine surgeon and an experienced general or vascular surgeon. We have that kind of surgical partnership here at RWJ Hamilton,” says Dr. Levine. “Both surgeons are present throughout the entire surgery to ensure that everything goes smoothly.”

Recovery typically requires a two- to three-night stay in the hospital followed by about 8 to 12 weeks in a brace to allow the fusion to take. Approximately 12 weeks post-surgery, the patient is ready for active physical therapy for several months.

The recovered patient can then get back to activities he had to set aside because of the back pain, and return to the life he loves.