Doctors and back-pain experts at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital help one patient with a herniated disc, and another with spinal stenosis

For CrossFit competitor Terri Farley, running, lifting weights and bicycling are all part of her high-intensity training program. But last year, as the 45-year-old office manager at Anderson Orthopaedic Clinic trained to qualify  for a national CrossFit competition, she experienced weakness and severe pain in her left arm that threatened her ability to compete.

“The pain was pretty brutal,” remembers Farley. “I would wake up fine, get dressed, go to work. As soon as I would get in the car, after just five minutes of driving, I would have a burning, sharp pain that would go from my shoulder all the way down my arm into my hand.

Farley went to see Corey Wallach, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and Medical  Director of the Inova Spine Program at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital. An MRI revealed that Farley had a herniated disc placing pressure on both her spinal cord and the nerves in her spine. To correct the problem, she had anterior cervical spine surgery, and just three days after the procedure, she was briskly walking four miles a day. In less than six weeks  she was back in the gym.

With her pain and weakness gone, Farley hopes  to compete in this year’s CrossFit games.

Open Road

Like Farley, Anita Ehler is  physically fit. Her job as a tour guide often involves walking for miles. So when she began experiencing  constant radiating pain in her back and down her left leg, she knew that in order to continue leading trips up and down the East Coast, she needed expert advice.

Ehler visited with Dr. Wallach, who explained that the nerves in her spinal canal were under pressure, causing spinal stenosis, and that her bones were shifting forward on one another, producing spondylolisthesis.

Dr. Wallach prescribed physical therapy to explore whether a conservative approach would provide the answer to Ehler’s pain. At first the strengthening and stretching exercises helped, but when the pain returned, Dr. Wallach recommended a minimally invasive procedure that would fix both of Ehler’s back problems: lumbar decompression and fusion. Within a few weeks, Ehler was able to walk without pain and get back to the career she loves.

“One of the benefits of the minimally invasive techniques is, even though we’re addressing the same problems as we are with traditional open surgeries, we’re able to do it through different incisions that are smaller and much less traumatic to the patients so they’re up and moving that same day,” says Dr. Wallach.

Is Surgery Right for You?

If you’re experiencing back pain, talk with your doctor about conventional options first, such as physical therapy and pain medication, advises Dr. Wallach.

“The overwhelming majority of patients can get better with conservative care including stretching, exercises, the appropriate use of anti-inflammatory medications and weight loss,” says Dr. Wallach. However, he adds, “When patients have symptoms that do not  respond to conservative care and they demonstrate elements of nerve pain, weakness, loss of sensation or evidence of nerve damage, that would be the appropriate time to proceed with spinal intervention and with surgery.”

Find out more

Corey Wallach, MD, frequently  provides lectures on back pain solutions. To find one happening soon, see the back page of this issue.