Rick Joerg, a West Chester, Ohio, resident, says there was one defining moment when he realized he had a serious problem with his back. “The trouble was definitely there when I was younger,” says Rick, now 62. “But as a young man, I never did anything about it. I just learned to compensate.”
As a building maintenance worker, he compensated while climbing ladders, picking up tools, making repairs, and lifting heavy objects. Over the years, the pain became worse. While cutting the grass one day, his knees started to ache and his feet became numb. “The pain was so bad that instead of walking up the parking garage stairs at work, which I like to do, I had to ride the elevator,” he says. “That was the moment I knew I needed help.”
“When the pain increased, I could see it written all over his face,” says his wife, Janie. “It's a helpless feeling when someone you love is in pain and there's nothing you can do about it.”
Rick’s primary care
physician referred him to John Roberts, MD
, an orthopedic spine surgeon. “At the appointment, Dr. Roberts was so friendly and kind,” Rick says. “As I sat on the exam table, he listened intently to everything I had to say, and I knew without a doubt that I was in the best hands.”
Dr. Roberts says Rick had severe degeneration in his lower lumbar region, along with spinal stenosis
—a blockage of the spinal canal that caused the weakness and pain in his legs.
In May 2018, Dr. Roberts performed a spinal fusion of the lower lumbar vertebrae, and a laminectomy to remove the blockage and pressure on the nerves. “In most cases, people don’t need surgery, but in Rick’s situation it was likely he would have substantial improvement with greatly reduced pain—and, in fact, that was the case," he says.
The night after surgery, Rick stood in his hospital room, and on the second day he walked the halls. “There I was, moving like there had never been a problem.” He added, laughing, “the nurses were so encouraging and said, ‘Go get ‘em Rick!’—and all I could think was, I hope the back of this gown is closed!”
On the third day, he went home. Physical therapy continued and, with occupational therapy, Rick soon returned to the job he loves. “Give me a hammer and a screwdriver and I'm happy.” Now, almost three years later, he is filled with gratitude for this “life-changing surgery” and is overcome with emotion when he speaks of Dr. Roberts. “I’m so grateful to him. It just doesn’t hurt anymore.”
Dr. Roberts says this is what he loves most. “It’s gratifying to help people regain their normal routines. The most heartwarming comments I hear are that patients are active and feel like they have their lives back.” He added that he finds great joy in helping patients improve their quality of life. “Patients often share with me how they can travel, take a walk, and play with their grandchildren.”
Rick says his healing journey, which began with a moment of awareness, has ended happily. He has some minor physical restrictions and occasionally must adapt his movements. “I’m not able to bend over very far, but I can squat and bend a little. When I climb a ladder or lift an object, I just think about how I must do it a different way. And that’s fine with me.”
A return to his leisure activities is a great joy for Rick, like routinely walking five miles—but he says, “nothing beats playing kickball again with my grandkids; only now I let them chase the ball.”Learn more about how our back and spine program and experts like Dr. Roberts can help you or someone you love!
Back Pain Q&A with John Roberts, MD
If you're suffering from back pain like Rick, chances are you have wondered when it's time to seek help, what type of treatments are available that don't require surgery, and more. Below, Dr. Roberts
answers these and other commonly asked questions.
Q: When should I seek a medical consultation for back pain?
A: There are some absolute criteria. If you have a back injury or some degree of back pain and are suddenly unable to urinate, that constitutes a surgical emergency. If you feel a loss of strength in your arms, hands, legs, or feet, you should see a spinal specialist to avoid the possibility of nerve injury. Numbing or tingling is also an indication, although not as urgent. And seek a medical consultation if you are no longer able to enjoy the simple pleasures in life.
Q: Are there non-surgical options for back pain?
A: Absolutely! About 90% of back problems are best handled with physical therapy, steroid injections, and oral medications. Experience indicates that in most cases, a diagnosis of a patient’s back issues is successfully treated with non-surgical options.
Q: What are some tips to help protect my back?
A: My No. 1 answer is that smoking has an enormously harmful effect on the discs in our spine, causing them to fail at a much earlier age. The first thing I do, is encourage someone to stop smoking. Weight loss also helps, in that your back does not have to carry around the extra weight. I also suggest moving from a sedentary lifestyle to a regularly active program—just begin with something you like. You cannot change a lifestyle overnight, but if you start slowly with a simple routine of enjoyable activities, you are more likely to stick with it.
Q: What would you say to someone contemplating back surgery?
A: Find a specialist you are comfortable with and gain as much insight as you can about the problem, the surgical options, and the expected results—which may include a certain amount of continued pain. Ask about the success rates for your condition.
Q: What is your approach to helping patients who seek medical help for back pain?
A: Degenerative spinal conditions often become so severe that they adversely impact a person’s quality of life. These patients are in great distress, so we work with each person individually to make sure they feel genuinely cared for, that we understand their medical situations, and they feel comfortable asking questions. We also inform them about what will happen every step of the way. Healing begins with a good attitude, so we encourage optimism and honest awareness. Overall, a compassionate approach to excellent patient care is our first priority at The Christ Hospital.
Learn more about back pain care at The Christ Hospital.