Backing Off Pain with a Spinal Spacer

Minimally invasive procedure relieves pain related to spinal stenosis 

(Sept. 19, 2019) Barbara Williams is eager to begin playing with her young niece and nephew again and returning to one of her favorite pastimes: bowling, a sport she once enjoyed at least once a week.

A car accident in November of 2018 turned the 59-year-old former school teacher’s life upside down. Following the accident, Williams was plagued by severe lower back and leg pain. Even the most mundane physical movements became a struggle. It didn’t stop there.  

“It got to a point where just sitting on the couch I was in pain,” says the Broadview resident. “It became increasingly frustrating. I began to wonder if I would ever be able to move well again and to do the things I used to do.”  

Williams tried a cortisone injection, which caused numbness and only limited relief from the pain. Subsequently, pain medications made her drowsy and not herself.

“I was too tired to do anything and my head was always cloudy,” she says. “I didn’t want to be in that state or to be in pain.” 

A ‘doorstop’ for spine disks

Determined not to get caught up in further treatments that warned of serious side effects like lack of alertness or a prolonged recovery, Williams worked with Sandeep Amin, MD, an anesthesiologist at Rush. He recommended a minimally invasive outpatient procedure that would insert a spacer between the fourth and fifth discs (spinous processes) of her spine.

An interspinous spacer is designed to treat the symptoms of neurogenic claudication — or inflammation of the nerves — related to spinal stenosis. It’s a sometimes painful condition caused by a narrowing of the spinal canal, which leads to the often seen “shopping cart stoop” when patients have to lean forward to take pressure of the spine in order to walk.

According to Amin, the surgery only takes 30 to 45 minutes, with a small incision in the back and the insertion of a butterfly-like device that opens to take pressure off the spine. Some patients see improvement within days.

“The simplest way to explain the device and its effectiveness is to say it’s similar to a doorstop,” says Amin, who has been performing the procedure at Rush Oak Park Hospital and Rush University Medical Center for well over a year now. “It’s a small titanium wedge that lifts up and stabilizes the disc.”

The procedure can be of benefit in patients who are not candidates for surgery due to other health conditions.

‘Now I’m up and moving’

A month after having the interspinous spacer procedure, Williams says she has nowhere near the pain she once experienced.

“I was pretty much not moving before. Now I’m up and moving, getting back into shape. Once in a while I feel a little discomfort, but it’s likely because I’m doing much more than I was before the procedure.”

Williams added that she’s now spending more time with her niece and nephew, both under the age of 5. “And while I haven’t gone yet, I’m planning on getting back to the bowling alley very soon.”

To make an appointment or to learn more about this procedure, visit the Rush Pain Center.