Back surgery procedure cutting down on pain, complications

Published: May. 4, 2016 at 12:32 PM CDT
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Every year, hundreds of thousands of Americans have back surgery and for a growing number of patients, the operations require fusing bone, or bone grafts, and a large amount of hardware. With complex spine surgery comes a higher risk of complications, but a new approach may be fixing backs and saving lives.

Seventy-nine year old Lee Elman thrives on a challenge. The bigger, the better.

“If I wasn’t able to do those sports then I’d be an old man. I’m an old man anyway, but I’d be conceived of as an old man.”

This New York City real estate investor puts in ten hour days at his Manhattan office. But over the past few years, back trouble has slowed him down. Among other things, he’s had twelve vertebrae fused.

Elman told Ivanhoe, “I was hoping this would be the final. It was the fifth surgery. Enough is enough.”

Roger Hartl, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City explained, “Because of his previous surgeries, he was at high risk for spinal infections.”

High-risk-patients, like Elman, have as much as a forty percent higher rate of potentially life-threatening complications after surgery.

Jason Spector, M.D., F.A.C.S., is a scientist and plastic surgeon at Weill Cornell Medical College. He and his colleagues are trying a tag team approach to complex spinal surgery.

After neurosurgeons do their job, Spector closes the wound, but it’s not about making the surgical site look pretty.

Spector told Ivanhoe, “We can slide those muscles into place so they can bring in a good blood supply and we can prevent or make as small as possible the risk of infection.”

Researchers studied the results of one-hundred surgeries combining neurology and plastic surgery. They found high-risk patients had only a seven percent rate of complications, down from 40 percent, historically.

“Their healing is faster so back to their normal lives faster,” said Spector.

Which for Elman means work hard, play harder.

Elman tells us he is not planning to climb any mountains right now, on his doctor’s orders, but he has very recently returned to horseback riding on wooded trails in New York.