Sweet Dreams

End back pain with minimally invasive laser procedures.

The nightmare began five years ago for Michigan native Laura Wall. That’s when the former Ford Motor Company employee first experienced a stabbing pain in her lower back. Her doctor diagnosed the problem as spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal and neuroforamen, in the areas where nerves exit the spinal cord though the vertebrae.

Photo by Nerissa Johnson.

Laura Wall

“It was an excruciating, throbbing, sharp pain in my lower back, and it was getting very achy,” Laura, now 64, shares. “And it was constant. It didn’t last just for five minutes. The pain was present every hour, every day, whether I was sitting or lying down.”
Over the years, Laura’s spinal stenosis deteriorated further, and her back pain intensified. Two years ago, the pain became so unpleasant, it began interfering with her daily endeavors. By that time, Laura had retired and was looking ahead to a long, active retirement in the warmer Florida climate. But her back condition threatened to derail those plans.
“On the trip from Michigan to Florida, we had to stop every two hours because my back pain was so intense, I couldn’t stand it,” Laura relates. “I got out of the car and stretched my back, which helped a little. I even turned on the heater in my seat, trying to ease the pain because it was so bad.
“But the pain kept increasing until I couldn’t walk very far without holding my back in extreme agony. I could hardly walk to the mailbox from my house, which is only six houses down, without pain. I couldn’t swim. I could hardly stand up, but I couldn’t sit for very long, either. The pain was a ten on a scale of one to ten.”
In search of a solution to her agonizing back problem, Laura turned to several spine specialists for their expert guidance. She visited one specialist while still living in Michigan and two others after she moved to Florida. None had good news for her.
“The doctors said they couldn’t help me,” she recalls. “They said I would have to have major surgery on my discs, and it probably still wouldn’t help with the pain. I cried when I heard that. I thought, Here I am retired, and I can’t do anything because of my back. It was a horrible feeling.
“Eventually, the pain became so severe, I could hardly do anything. I couldn’t play with my grandkids. I didn’t see my grandbaby learn to swim at the beach. I couldn’t make it that far. If I worked in the house, I had to stop and sit down every five minutes. I couldn’t do anything people need to do to participate in society. My life was just terrible at that point.”
Laura’s fortunes began to change in early 2018 after she was told about a seminar on minimally invasive spine surgery that was offered by the spine specialists at Physician Partners of America. She decided to attend the seminar, and there she met James St. Louis, DO, director of Physician Partners of America’s Minimally Invasive Spine Group. Dr. St. Louis gave her what the other doctors did not: hope.
“None of the other doctors I visited helped me,” she decries. “They all said I would have to have surgery or live the rest of my life with the pain and settle for getting cortisone shots in my back. Then I went to the seminar and met
Dr. St. Louis, and he said he could help me.” After reviewing her MRI, Dr. St. Louis told Laura she didn’t need major surgery on her discs. Instead, he could perform a minimally invasive spine procedure that would relieve her pain. Laura was ecstatic and agreed.

Sparing Muscles

When it comes to surgery, the term “minimally invasive” is often misunderstood. It is typically equated with a procedure performed through smaller incisions than those used during open surgery. But with minimally invasive spine procedures, there’s more to it than that. They are muscle-sparing as well.
“During traditional open surgery on the back or neck, the muscles are cut away from the bone so that the surgeon can visualize the area and see what he or she is doing to the spine,” describes Dr. St. Louis, who is a pioneer in the field. “And once a muscle is cut, it is damaged forever and can no longer function appropriately.”
Muscles are needed to support the spine and for movement. When the muscles are cut, the spine’s biomechanics are altered, leaving the back or neck weak. And that can lead to pain after open surgery.
“During minimally invasive spine surgery, the muscles are not cut at all,” Dr. St. Louis assures. “Instead, we insert special dilators between the muscle fibers and simply push the muscles aside. This way, we preserve the muscles and their function.

“Since my surgery, I can do everything without any back pain whatsoever. And it’s been wonderful. I’m going to be sixty-five in September, and I’m having the time of my life.” – Laura

“Because we spare the muscles, and use smaller incisions during minimally invasive spine surgery, there is less bleeding, less pain and a quicker recovery. It can be performed as an outpatient procedure rather than requiring a several-day hospital stay.”
There’s also hope for people who have been told they need to have one or more discs surgically fused to stabilize their spine. Open spinal fusions traditionally involve the insertion of metal rods and screws and require a six- to 12-month recovery process. At Physician Partners of America, surgeons can perform fusion surgeries using minimally invasive techniques.
“When we perform a minimally invasive fusion, we work through two small incisions, one on each side of the low back,” explains Stefan Prada, MD, another Physician Partners of America minimally invasive spine surgeon. “We insert the rods and screws through those incisions and place them at one or two disc levels, which eliminates the instability.
“Again, there’s no muscle cutting, less bleeding and less pain. Patients go home after the procedure. They don’t require a three- or four-day stay in the hospital, as with traditional open fusion.”
Surgeons at Physician Partners of America can also use minimally invasive techniques to perform procedures such as laminotomy and foraminotomy using a laser. These procedures make room for nerves that are pinched at the openings between the discs or at the neuroforamen.
“We use various instruments to move past the muscles and get to the bone,” Dr. Prada educates. “Guided by the patient’s MRI, we assess what is pinching the nerve. It could be a bone spur, a thickened ligament, a cyst or a piece of herniated disc material. We use a laser to free up the nerve by removing whatever is pinching it.
“Using this technique, patients generally have significant improvement in their pain. And the procedure is performed through an incision that is typically an inch or smaller.”
Laura had a laminotomy and foraminotomy to relieve her agonizing back pain. Initially, Dr. St. Louis used a laser, which enabled him to target the specific area of her low back that was the source of her problem: lumbar discs three and four.
“Apparently, I had swollen nerves that were wrapped around my spinal cord,” Laura describes. “During surgery, the doctor shaved a little bit off of my spine to make room for the nerves.
“I walked out of the hospital the same day. I received excellent care, and after two days, I felt fantastic. There wasn’t a lot of pain with the surgery. I only took one pain pill. I was just so happy because I could finally do things again.”

Photo by Nerissa Johnson.

“What’s better than walking out the front door after surgery and going home, relaxing for a day or two, then carrying on with your life the way you want?” – Laura

“A New Life”

Laura underwent her minimally invasive spine procedure in March 2018. Now, more than a year later, she is still amazed by the surgery’s overwhelming success.
“It’s been a new life for me since I had this surgery,” Laura raves. “Now, I can sleep, I can bend over, I can even vacuum my floors. I can sit for hours. Everything I couldn’t do before I can do now. And my pain level is zero. It was zero two days after surgery.
“Now, I can walk to the mailbox and walk long distances. I couldn’t walk very far for five years. Now, I walk five miles a day. I can even run. Since my surgery, I can do everything without any back pain whatsoever. And it’s been wonderful. I’m going to be sixty-five in September, and I’m having the time of my life.”
The other doctors Laura visited gave her little hope of finding relief from her agonizing back pain, but she defied their dire prognoses. She’s especially pleased that her retirement plans are back on schedule. Her nightmare is back to being a sweet dream.
“Getting this minimally invasive laser spine surgery was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Laura enthuses. “It changed my whole retirement life. Now, I can swim. I can play with my grandkids. I can sit and do my pottery. I like to shop, and now I can. I can walk in the park and on the beach. I can do anything I want.
“What’s better than walking out the front door after surgery and going home, relaxing for a day or two, then carrying on with your life the way you want? There’s no better way to deal with severe back pain than that. So yes, I think minimally invasive spine surgery at Physician Partners of America is fantastic. I really appreciate what they did for me.”

Print This Article
    • Physician Partners of America

      Physician Partners of America is proud to be a pioneer in the field of laser spine surgery procedures. Minimally invasive spine procedures can often be performed using incisions smaller than 1 inch, compared to incisions of 5 inches or more u... Read More

    • James St. Louis, DO

      James St. Louis, DO, earned his Bachelor of Science and Masters of Science degrees from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. He received his osteopathic medicine degree from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, and comple... Read More

    • Stefan Prada, MD

      Stefan Prada, MD, earned, in a combined six-year program, his Bachelor of Science degree in Biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY and his medical degree from Albany Medical College. He served in the US Navy, alternati... Read More