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A knife in back surgery

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Every year, half a million Americans undergo surgery for low back problems alone, at a cost of more than $11 billion. 

For the most part, the surgeries are for herniated (or slipped) discs, where a disc tears, some of its gelatinous insides come out, and the disc starts to bulge.

The other major condition landing people at the surgeon’s door is spinal stenosis, caused by slipped discs or arthritis. In this case, the spinal canal begins to narrow, pinching the spinal cord or the nerves branching off to various parts of the body, and causing pain, tingling or numbness in your arms or legs, depending where the pinch occurs on the spine. 

With our sedentary lives, pinched nerves affect more than 10 percent of the population, particularly those over 50.

The most common procedure for pinched spinal nerves in the lower back is laminectomy, where the surgeon removes the bony arches on vertebrae, or bony growths or ligaments, in order to relieve pressure on nerve roots.

Otherwise, there’s a coterie of more drastic solutions: disc replacements, spinal fusion, where two vertebrae are essentially surgically locked together, or even removal of chunks of vertebrae or nerves.

But even surgeons, when they’re being honest, admit that if there’s one area in the body where surgery should be the very last resort, it’s        your spine.

One-fifth of patients leave surgery with what is known as a “failed back,” meaning they are in constant pain and there’s nothing medicine can do about it.

Professor Gordon Waddell, one of the UK’s top orthopedic surgeons, once estimated that medicine achieves dramatic surgical successes in only 1 percent of patients with low back pain and fails the other 99 percent, who get progressively worse with every intervention, “leaving more tragic human wreckage in its wake than any other operation in history.”

Take slipped discs. A major Cochrane review of the evidence found, despite a slight advantage for surgically removing all or part of a disc, that any positive or negative effects were “unclear,” and a number of patients suffered a recurrence and need for yet more surgery. 

The jury was also out on surgery for pinched spinal nerves. When the Cochrane database reviewed all the major studies comparing surgery for the condition with conservative management, the researchers found very little benefit to surgery, but side-effects in up to nearly a quarter of patients opting to go under the knife. 

The evidence on spinal fusion was particularly damning. In one 2010 study of nearly 1,500 patients with disc degeneration, herniation or pinched nerves, after surgery, one-third had complications, more than a tenth were permanently disabled, and more than a quarter required another operation. And clearly the operations didn’t relieve pain, as three-quarters of the patients continued to take opiate drugs after their surgeries.

Only about a quarter were able to return to work, compared with more than two-thirds of those who did not have surgery.

These were the batting averages facing Sally Lansdale when her back pain, which had started in her youth, got progressively worse, particularly after a series of accidents left her with a herniated disc (see page 60).

Although the pain was becoming intolerable, as an osteopath, she had seen first-hand the disastrous outcomes that often result from surgery.

Luckily, she heard of a fairly new treatment called intervertebral differential dynamics (IDD) therapy—a twenty-first century version of traction—and decided to give it a try. After a series of treatments, her symptoms vanished, and she hasn’t looked back.

A similar situation occurred with Natasha, a London hairdresser with pinched spinal nerves causing pain in some areas and such severe numbness in one leg that she was constantly falling down. Things were getting so bad that she thought she might have to give up work. 

Happily, she also came across IDD therapy. Although her series of treatments took a number of months, eventually her symptoms were completely resolved.

IDD therapy joins a growing list of treatments, including platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections with a concentrated form of the patient’s own blood, prolozone (the use of ozone) and stem cell therapy, that are low-risk, less invasive and far more successful than surgery for slipped discs and pinched nerves.

May you check out this innovative technique before becoming yet another of Professor Waddell’s statistics.

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