Do You Really Need Spine Surgery?

By David Hanscom, MD, PNN Columnist

In today’s medical environment, big business is taking over in almost every realm. The focus is on productivity, instead of ensuring the highest quality of care. For spine surgeons like myself, the revenue generators are procedures and “interventions” – even though most of them have been shown to be ineffective.

New technology has made the situation worse instead of better. The interventions are larger, more expensive and much riskier. You, the patients, have become targets and opportunities.

The last five years of my practice became increasingly intolerable. I would see several patients a week who had surgery performed or recommended on spines that didn’t have a surgical problem. I hit a tipping point when I saw an athletic older gentleman who had his spine fused from his neck to his pelvis for muscular thoracic pain after lifting weights. He went from playing tennis and golf to being housebound, on high-dose opioids and had a psychotic break.

He was fused in a crooked position and could no longer see his feet.  He had to undergo a second 12-hour surgery just to stand him up straight again.

His case was a significant factor in my decision to retire from my practice as a complex spine surgeon in December of 2018 to pursue educating the public as to the nature and extent of the problem, as well as present viable solutions.

Fusions Have Low Success Rate

Spine surgery works wonderfully well when there is a distinct identifiable anatomical abnormality and pain is in the expected region of the body. However, surgery works poorly if the source of pain is unclear.

There is a widespread belief among patients and many physicians that when everything else has been tried and failed, then surgery is the next logical step. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Defining the correct anatomical problem to surgically treat is problematic. One of the most glaring examples of blindly proceeding with surgery in spite of the evidence is performing a fusion for low back pain (LBP).

It is well-documented that disc degeneration, bone spurs, arthritis, bulging discs, etc. are rarely the cause of LBP. Often, we really don’t know where the pain might be arising.

The success rate of fusions for LBP is less than 30%.  Most people expect a much better outcome and the resulting disappointment is problematic.

Another major problem is that when a surgical procedure is performed in a person with chronic pain in any part of the body, he or she may experience chronic pain at the new surgical site between 40 and 60% of the time. Five to ten percent of the time, the pain is permanent.

bigstock-Pain-12250472.jpg

Many patients have told me undergoing spine surgery was one of the worst decisions of their life: “If I just knew how bad this could be, I never would have done it.”

Consider what happens when you go to the dentist with a painful cavity that may require a root canal, crown or extraction. There is a defined problem, and the pain will usually disappear once the problem is solved.

But what if you had gum disease or jaw pain, and a tooth doesn’t appear to be the source? Would you let your dentist randomly work on different teeth to see if it might help?

Making an accurate diagnosis of the problem is always the first step in solving it. 

Understanding the Whole Picture

Chronic pain is a complex problem that requires time and a multi-pronged approach to treatment. Current neuroscience research has unlocked the puzzle of chronic pain and it’s a solvable problem using the correct paradigm. But in the current medical climate, surgeons are being asked (and pushed) to move too quickly, and not factor in all of the variables that affect pain and surgical outcomes.

One 2014 research paper reported that only 10% of orthopedic spine surgeons and neurosurgeons are addressing and treating the well-documented variables in patients that predict poor outcomes. For example, one common problem for patients is lack of sleep. A large four-year study out of Israel demonstrated that insomnia induces low back pain. If a patient is sleep-deprived for just one night, his or her pain tolerance drops dramatically.

There are two sets of variables to consider when deciding whether to undergo spine surgery.

1) Your anatomy:  Has your doctor used an MRI or diagnostic test to identify the anatomical problem? If there isn’t a clearly identifiable source of pain, then surgery isn’t an option, regardless of how much pain you are experiencing.

2) Your nervous system and body chemistry:  Are you calm? Or are you stressed and hyper-vigilant? If your nervous system is on “high alert” for any reason, the outcomes of surgery are predictably poor, especially if you can’t identify the anatomical problem.  

If you are stressed, there are simple, consistently effective measures that can calm your nervous system and help you become pain free, often without surgery.

We already have the knowledge and technology to offer superb care and much of the data is being ignored. Whatever you decide to do or what resources you might use, don’t jump into spine surgery until you understand the whole picture. It may be the biggest decision of your life. 

David+Hanscom.jpg

Dr. David Hanscom is a spinal surgeon who has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery.

In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Why I’m Leaving My Spine Surgery Practice

By David Hanscom, MD, PNN Columnist

From the day I entered medical school, I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon. I was planning on practicing internal medicine, but on a whim I applied for an orthopedic residency and, much to my surprise, was accepted.

I came out of my residency and fellowship in 1985 on fire, ready to solve the world’s spine problems with my surgical skills.

About six months ago, something shifted deep within me. In the three decades I’ve practiced spine surgery in the Seattle area, I’ve tried to address the whole patient. But I didn’t yet have a clear idea about all the factors that affect a person’s physical and mental health.

In fact, for the first eight years of my practice, I was part of Seattle’s movement to surgically solve low back pain with lumbar fusions. A new device had been introduced that ensured a much higher chance of a successful fusion. Our fusion rate for low back pain was nine times that of New England’s. I felt badly if I couldn’t find a reason to perform a fusion.

Then a paper came out in 1993 documenting that the success rate for fusion in the Washington Workers Compensation population was only between 15 to 25 percent. I had been under the impression that it was over 90 percent. A lumbar fusion is a major intervention with a significant short and long-term complication rate. I immediately stopped performing them.  

I also plunged into a deep abyss of chronic pain that many would call a burnout. I had no idea what happened or why. I had become a top-level surgeon by embracing stress with a “bring it on” attitude. I was fearless and didn’t know what anxiety was.

What I didn’t realize was that my drive for success was fueled by my need to escape an abusive and anxiety-ridden childhood. I was a supreme master of suppressing anxiety until 1990, when I experienced a severe panic attack while driving on a bridge over Lake Washington late one night.

Although I was skilled at consciously suppressing my anxiety, my body wasn’t going to let me get away with it. Anxiety and anger create a flood of stress hormones in your body. Sustained levels of these hormones translate into over 30 possible physical symptoms. I descended into a 13-year tailspin that almost resulted in my suicide.  

DAVID HANSCOM, MD

DAVID HANSCOM, MD

I can’t express in words how dark my world became. I experienced migraines, tension headaches, migratory skin rashes, severe anxiety in the form of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, burning feet, PTSD, tinnitus, pain in my neck, back and chest, insomnia, stomach issues, and intermittent itching over my scalp.

In 2002, I accidentally began my journey out of that dark hole by picking up a book that recommended writing down thoughts in a structured way.  For the first time I felt a shift and a slight decrease in my anxiety. I learned some additional treatments and six months later, I was free of pain. All of my other symptoms disappeared.

I began to share what I learned with my patients and watched many of them improve. Addressing sleep was the first step. Slowly I expanded it to add medication management, education about pain, stress management skills, physical conditioning, and an improved life outlook.

I still didn’t know what happened to me or why. Then in 2009, I heard a lecture by Dr. Howard Schubiner, who had trained with Dr. John Sarno, a physiatrist who championed the idea that emotional pain translates into physical symptoms.

Within five minutes of the beginning of Dr. Shubiner’s lecture, the pieces of my puzzle snapped into place. I realized that sustained levels of stress hormones can and will create physical symptoms. I also learned how the nervous system works by linking current circumstances with past events. If a given situation reminds you of past emotional trauma, you may experience similar symptoms that occurred around the prior event.

I felt like I had been let out of jail. I’ll never forget that moment of awareness.

What’s puzzling is that these concepts are what we learned in high school science class. When you’re threatened for any reason, your body secretes stress chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol. You’ll then experience a flight, fight or freeze response, with an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, muscle tension and anxiety. When this chemical surge is sustained, you become ill. It’s been well documented that stress shortens your life span and is a precursor of chronic diseases.

Modern medicine is ignoring this. We are not only failing to treat chronic pain, but creating it.

Spine surgeons are throwing random treatments at symptoms without taking the time to know a patient’s whole story.  It takes just five minutes for a doctor to ask a simple question, “What’s going on in your life over the last year?” Answers may include the loss of a job, loved one, divorce, or random accident. The severity of their suffering is sometimes beyond words. But once we help them past this trauma, their physical symptoms usually resolve.

What has become more disturbing is that I see patients every week who have major spine surgery done or recommended for their normal spines. It often occurs on the first visit. Patients tell me they often feel pressured to get placed on the surgical schedule quickly. At the same time, I am watching dozens of patients with severe structural surgical problems cancel their surgery because their pain disappears using the simple measures I’ve learned.

I love my work. I enjoy my partners as we help and challenge each other. My surgical skills are the best they’ve been in 30 years. My clinic staff is superb in listening and helping patients heal. I’m also walking away from it.

I can’t keep watching patients being harmed at such a staggering pace. I have loved seeing medicine evolve over the last 40 years, but now I feel like I am attempting to pull it out of a deep hole. I never thought it would end this way. Wish me luck.

Dr. David Hanscom has helped hundreds of back pain sufferers by teaching them how to calm their central nervous systems without the use of drugs or surgery. In his book Back in ControlHanscom shares the latest developments in neuroscience research and his own personal history with pain.

More information can be found on his website.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

What Arachnoiditis Did to Me

By Shane Schwartz, Guest Columnist

I injured my back lifting tiles and went through every possible treatment, including physical therapy, steroid injections and a host of other things before finally deciding to have surgery. I couldn't take the pain any longer.

After speaking with the neurosurgeon, I elected to proceed and had a 360 degree 2 level fusion at L4-S1 with plating and decompression. It was quite an extensive surgery lasting over 9 hours. I did okay for the first 6 months and was placed in physical therapy as part of my rehabilitation -- supposedly to get back to 80% of my normal health.

Well it fell apart shortly after that and I underwent another round of epidural injections in hopes of some sort of relief, but to no avail.

After being kicked to the curb by my neurosurgeon and being told of all kinds of different diagnoses which made absolutely no sense, I went to the Oklahoma University Medical Center because I was told I had a brain tumor by the crooked neurosurgeon’s partners in crime.

Upon arriving at the hospital, I said I needed a brain scan because of what the doctors who did my spine surgery had told me. The doctors at OU pretty much laughed after a physical exam of me. They scheduled me for spinal imaging and that is the first time I ever heard of Arachnoiditis. My father is a nurse anesthetist and he was very concerned when he heard that word being used.

Suddenly everything started fitting into place as to what was happening to my body. Look at the before and after pictures of me. My heart goes out to everyone dealing with this.

I sent my MRIs scans to a very qualified physician who specializes in this disorder and went to visit with him after reviewing my scans. He confirmed it was Adhesive Arachnoiditis.

Folks, this disorder is so much more than a spine issue. It robs me of everyday life as I once knew it.

I'm 41 years old, but feel as if I'm 90. No disrespect to the elders, please don't misunderstand me, but it causes unrelenting pain throughout my entire body.

BEFORE AND AFTER PHOTOS OF SHANE SCHWARTZ

BEFORE AND AFTER PHOTOS OF SHANE SCHWARTZ

I just want to be able to enjoy life with my children again. I have a 17 and 8 year old who have basically had their father stolen from them.

This disorder needs to be on the front burner of every doctor doing any kind of spine surgery, as I was NEVER warned of anything even remotely close to this as a side effect.  I question almost daily if tomorrow is even worth it. This is no way to live.

The spine surgeons keep getting richer at the public expense and when something of this nature occurs, you are like a tin can and kicked to the next doctor, who may or may not take you. From my experience no doctor wants to deal with Arachnoiditis once they hear the word. WHY?!?!? I am a human being!!!! Not a tin can that can just be kicked around and down the road because these doctors don’t want to deal with it or own it!!!

It's so very frustrating, depressing, and my anxiety is through the roof. It's just HORRIBLE!!!

God bless anyone and everyone who has this disorder and has to deal with it on a daily basis. I am open to conversing with others in my shoes. I love and wish us all the best and thanks for reading.

Shane Schwartz lives in Oklahoma.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.