Mother and sons pain-free after minimally invasive spine surgery

Mother and Sons Pain-free After Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery

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For Shelley Chasen and her family, advanced spine surgery techniques have become the backbone of good health.

Last year, when Shelley began to develop back pain that wouldn’t respond to physical therapy exercises or pain injections, she knew it was time to consider surgery. “I went through two rounds of physical therapy before I realized it wasn’t working. It didn’t matter what I did—I had a progressive disease that wasn’t getting better,” she says.

Fortunately, Shelley knew exactly where she wanted to go for her surgery. “There’s only one surgeon I would go to,” she says.

She made an appointment with Faheem Sandhu, MD, PhD, professor of neurosurgery and director of spine surgery at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. She knew Dr. Sandhu because he had successfully treated her son Adam and her son-in-law Risto years ago.

“Shelley had a very straightforward problem of spinal stenosis, which caused nerve compression, radiating leg pain, and difficulty walking,” says Dr. Sandhu, who has been performing spine surgery for more than 20 years. He recommended they proceed with a two-level laminectomy surgery using minimally invasive surgical techniques, given her circumstances. The procedure involved removing bone and ligaments that compressed Shelley’s nerves. Dr. Sandhu would only need to make a small incision in her back to make the repair.

“With minimally invasive surgeries, the results are excellent because we can take the pressure off the nerves without disrupting the back muscles too much. Patients’ symptoms resolve quickly,” says Dr. Sandhu.

Shelley underwent surgery in January 2023. The procedure lasted two hours, and she went home the same day. “I had no real pain from the surgery at all, and only slight discomfort during recovery,” she says. For the following six weeks, Dr. Sandhu recommended walking, some movement restrictions, such as avoiding twisting and lifting heavy items, and physical therapy.

Less than two months later, Shelley’s leg pain was gone. She’s now back to her normal activities, including walking, her favorite form of exercise. “The procedure was the easiest thing, and I had a great result. I walked over a mile within six days of the surgery. A few weeks later, I walked four miles, and I’ve walked many times in between those two,” she says. She’s especially grateful she is able to keep up with her young grandchildren.

“Each and every person that I had contact with the day of my surgery was lovely,” Shelley recalls. “The nurses, the anesthesiologist, Dr. Sandhu—everyone made sure my questions were answered, and that put me at ease.”

Looking back more than a decade ago, Shelley’s son Adam sought treatment for significant back pain from participating in sports and years of extensive exercise. He chose to undergo a discectomy at another clinic, where a surgeon removed the damaged parts of his discs. The procedure failed to provide lasting relief, and a severe case of drop foot—a condition affecting the use of his leg and foot—made it difficult for him to walk and engage in activities. He knew that, eventually, a consequential fusion surgery would likely be necessary.

At that time, a cousin referred him to MedStar Georgetown for their multidisciplinary team of neuro and orthopaedic surgeons and cutting-edge spine treatment techniques. That’s when Adam and his family met Dr. Sandhu.

“From the start, Dr. Sandhu led us with compassion and clearly explained all of the options before giving us his recommendation,” Adam says. “He helped us feel very comfortable with the risk assessment to make the best decision possible.”

Due to rigorous exercise and genetic disposition, Adam’s discs continued deteriorating above and below the site of his initial discectomy surgery. But despite the nuances of Adam’s condition, Dr. Sandhu was confident that less invasive techniques could help. Over the course of more than ten years, he performed four minimally invasive surgeries on Adam to treat his recurrent disc herniations and degenerations: two microdiscectomies, a one-level fusion, and a three-level fusion.

“Sometimes the underlying pathology is such that it requires more than one intervention,” Dr. Sandhu says. “In Adam’s case, we were able to complete each surgery using minimally invasive techniques, and he was able to get back to a very active lifestyle.”

It’s been five years since his last surgery, and Adam, now age 42, is pain-free with a thriving career in real estate. He credits his recovery to the attentive care and surgical expertise he received at MedStar Georgetown.

“Dr. Sandhu and his team were wonderful,” says Adam. “I felt very comfortable from check in to check out.”

In 2021, Shelley’s son-in-law Risto Marttinen also began experiencing back pain when sciatica sidelined him from two of his favorite sports: wrestling and jiu-jitsu. An associate professor of health and physical education at George Mason University, Risto had previously undergone a discectomy surgery at another hospital to treat sciatic pain from a sports injury. Shortly after that procedure, an additional exercise injury caused a recurrence of sciatica.

“I was walking with a cane,” he says. “I was barely able to make it down the hallway to my classroom to teach.”

Based on his pain level and surgical history, another surgeon recommended that he pursue a fusion. But Risto hoped for an alternative solution. Recalling his family’s positive experiences with spine surgery at MedStar Georgetown, he met with Dr. Sandhu to discuss treatment options. A few months later, Dr. Sandhu performed a minimally invasive discectomy on Risto to alleviate his sciatic pain and preserve mobility. He went home the same day of the surgery.

After a swift recovery, Risto can walk freely again, and he’s able to accompany his daughter to the local playground.

“I was actually disappointed that I waited so long to have that surgery,” he says. “That particular procedure was a game changer, and I was back on my feet so quickly.”

According to Dr. Sandhu, minimally invasive spine surgery effectively treats patients with severe back pain caused by injury, aging, and genetics. “Technology is constantly evolving, and we do everything we can to implement tools like these less invasive surgical techniques to make things easier for patients,” he says.

“It’s so important to find providers who help you feel supported,” Shelley says. “Dr. Sandhu and the exceptional team at MedStar Georgetown embodied that for all of us. We knew we were in safe hands—always—and we’ve had great successes.”

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