The People's Perspective on Medicine

Show 1195: Do You Need Spine Surgery?

Chronic pain has a huge emotional component. While spine surgery can correct deformities, people with chronic back pain may need additional help.
Dr. David Hanscom, author of Do You Really Need Spine Surgery?
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Do You Need Spine Surgery?

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People who have suffered with back pain for a long time may be told that spine surgery is their last resort. But far too often, spine surgery does not relieve back pain. Sometimes, people even feel worse afterwards. How can you tell if spine surgery would be right for you?

Mark Owens’s Story:

Mark Owens lived a life of adventure as a wildlife scientist in remote regions of Africa. But when he returned to the US, he suffered a broken spine in a riding accident. The aftermath of that event left him with crippling back pain for years, during which he went through numerous back surgeries. Finally, seeking a second opinion, he saw Dr. Hanscom, who recommended an expressive writing exercise instead of surgery. He was astonished when this exercise reduced his pain more than all of his previous treatments.

Expressive Writing:

Before Dr. Hanscom retired from his practice doing complex orthopedic surgery on spinal deformities, he would have his patients prepare with an expressive writing exercise. Writing down all your negative thoughts, longhand, for 15 minutes a day, and tearing them up as soon as they are written, is surprisingly effective at managing anxiety, pain and stress. Some people, like Mark Owens, find that the expressive writing exercise alone manages their pain very well. For others, reducing the pain circuits and the anxiety before a surgical procedure improves the prospects of a desirable outcome.

When Do You Need Spine Surgery?

When there is an anatomical deformity in the spine causing the symptoms, surgery can help. However, people with ordinary lower back pain are not likely to benefit from spine surgery.

Instead, boosting positive emotions such as gratitude and forgiveness and managing negative emotions such as anxiety, fear or despair through expressive writing can provide relief. Learning to play can be extremely helpful, not just for back pain, but for many different types of painful conditions.

Direct Your Own Care:

Dr. Hanscom is a proponent of patients learning to direct their own care. Following the DOC principles can help people out of chronic pain and into healing.

This Week’s Guests:

Mark Owens worked for more than two decades as a wildlife scientist in some of the most remote parts of Africa. During that time he survived a plane crash, charging lions, leopards, elephants and Cape buffalos, as well as ivory poachers who repeatedly tried to kill him. Then in 2006 after he had returned to the USA, a horse-riding accident broke his back and crushed his chest, leaving him in acute chronic pain for the next nine years. When Mark met Dr. David Hanscom, he found an alternative to yet another spinal surgery–and may well have saved his life.

Dr. David Hanscom is an orthopedic complex spinal deformity surgeon who was based in Seattle, WA. He retired in 2018 after 32 years in practice. Today, Dr. Hanscom’s mission is to re-introduce true healing into medicine. He feels that doctors should be given the time to listen and understand their patients. He is the author of Back in Control : A Surgeon’s Roadmap Out of Chronic Pain, and his most recent book is Do You Really Need Spine Surgery? Take Control with Advice from a Surgeon. His website is www.backincontrol.com

Listen to the Podcast:

The podcast of this program will be available the Monday after the broadcast date. The show can be streamed online from this site and podcasts can be downloaded for free. CDs may be purchased at any time after broadcast for $9.99.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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Writing didn’t help me. My problem was a herniated disc that presses my sciatic nerve. Surgery fixed it. If I hadn’t had it I would now be “celebrating” 29 years of being bedridden. As it is I lead a normal life.

I had a work accident and experienced back pain for over 20 years. Writing down your negatives and then tearing up the piece of paper they are on may help; it’s a plan I am going to try. I’ve been doing a had similar activity for a couple years now: Given the “sad state of our current politics,” when I do my “morning constitutional” I began to name what was in the porcelain throne’s bowl for a politician I thought deserved to be the “politician of the day,” and I wished then a nice voyage as I pushed the flush lever. For me, that act removed a real negative as it disappeared, and I find that this “suggestive method” takes away nearly all my back pain except for when I over-do it.

I highly recommend writing to help heal from back pain and other maladies. Writing helps to process negative and stressful events Dr. John Sarno was the pioneer of TMS -Tension Myositis Syndrome. His first book, “Healing Back Pain,” helped me tremendously in dealing with Fibromyalgia/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and back pain.

Excellent suggestions whether in pain or not. Thank you.

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