Did you know that scoliosis is the most common spinal deformity, affecting more than seven million people in the United States? This sideways curve of the spine or backbone can cause severe damage to the nerves, discs, and other internal organs– if not diagnosed or treated properly.
As a child growing up in a farm town just outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin, Gary Fietz remembers his recurring achy legs and back pain being quickly dismissed and blamed on the result of playing youth sports. But by his mid-twenties, he could no longer ignore the pain. “One day at work I sneezed while bending over to open a filing cabinet drawer,” said Fietz. “I threw my whole back out!”
After several X-rays and MRIs, Gary was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and scoliosis. It was recommended that he undergo spinal fusion. Fusion involved literally fusing two spinal discs together to relieve pain. Fusion also means that one’s mobility may be altered, and Fietz was not ready to go through with it.
After a cross-country move from Wisconsin to Colorado, and eventually Arizona, Fietz began looking for ways to relieve his back pain once again.
“I found medical help from an Internal Medicine doctor who prescribed me Hydrocodone and Vicodin,” said Fietz. “This became the salvation of my pain for many years.”
Fietz managed his pain, but it was visibly obvious to others that he was struggling. “I would have to stand at my granddaughter’s basketball games because it became too hard to sit down on the bench. The pain was becoming unbearable.”
Then an acquaintance recommended a spine specialist that she had seen at Barrow. As fate would have it, one of the leading experts on scoliosis in the country, Dr. Kumar Kakarla, practices at Barrow.
“When I met Mr. Fietz, not only was I worried about his spine, but the curvature was so severe, it was beginning to crush his internal organs,” said Dr. Kakarla. “After reviewing several X-rays and MRIs, it was clear that this was going to be a complex case.”
As it turned out, Fietz was suffering from scoliosis in his lumbar spine as well as kyphosis, a condition that causing hunching, in his thoracic spine. As a result, his height had been reduced from 6 feet to 5 feet 3 inches.
“The combination of scoliosis and kyphosis resulted in a pretty severe deformity and discomfort for Mr. Fietz,” said Dr. Kakarla. “We had to address both problems at the same time to achieve a meaningful result for him.”
During a 12-hour procedure, Dr. Kakarla discovered that the scoliosis and kyphosis had stiffened Fietz’s spine to the point that several aggressive osteotomies (re-sections of bone) were required to loosen the spine before a spinal fusion could be performed.
“Osteotomies are fairly complex and need to be done with great care for safety, which extends the surgical time,” explained Dr. Kakarla. “The challenge with this procedure was to perform these maneuvers successfully and correct the spinal deformity without any resulting paralysis.”
Following the surgery, Fietz had a long road to recovery. According to Dr. Kakarla, recovery from scoliosis surgery takes two to three months, and Fietz was no exception. Around three months post-surgery, Fietz began physical therapy to regain strength in his back. This enabled him to increase his activities and enjoy life without the disabling pain he had suffered for so many years.
Was the surgery successful?
“The way we measure success is first by evaluating the amount of pain relief a patient feels, and how the overall quality of life has improved,” said Dr. Kakarla. “It really depends on the patient’s perception and whether they would undergo the same surgery again to achieve the benefits they have received. If the answer is yes, then the surgery was a success.”
So what does Gary say? “I am 68, but I feel like I am 20 years old again. That’s how much this surgery has meant for me. I stand up straight. I can go to the gym, hit the treadmill, and even lift weights. I am also off all pain medication and as a result I feel more energetic and mentally sharp again too. Finding Dr. Kakarla and his team at Barrow has truly given me my life back! I am so grateful.”
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