For almost 20 years I have lived with osteopenia, a disease characterized by loss of bone mass and weakening of the bones. That led to osteoporosis in 2008, and in 2009 I had to have a microdisectomy to repair a herniated disc that I suffered after several falls. I still considered myself fairly independent – I went for walks a lot and was an active volunteer with a few local organizations.
I recently had multiple fractures in my spine due to osteoporosis and I joke that the fractures were all my fault for stopping taking a drug to treat my osteoporosis. I started taking it in 2015 and my bone mass improved significantly from -4.9 on a bone density scan to -2.6. For reference, a -5 is the lower edge of the scale. Although I was thrilled with the results, I didn’t like the side effects of the medication, which ranged from scorching hot flashes that made me climb into a freezer to joints that were so painful that it reduced freedom of movement in my right shoulder was. When my doctor forgot to do an automatic refill, I used that as a reason to stop taking it.
Fast forward to early 2019. My brother died and I flew to California for his funeral. My back hurt all the time. I just brushed it off because I still had back pain from my previous falls. I also thought that sitting on multiple planes and uncomfortable airport chairs during layovers from my Charleston, South Carolina home to Los Angeles, as well as sleeping on different couches and beds during my visit, had taken my toll. Maybe at some point I just moved my spine in the wrong direction.
I endured uninterrupted pain for four weeks. It got worse, not better. I would try to go somewhere and a pinching, piercing feeling would grasp and I couldn’t go on. Then I went to the doctor and said I need help.
An MRI showed I had two fractured vertebrae – my T12 and L1 – that are in my middle and lower back. The radiologist who read the MRI said I had a vertebral compression fracture (VCF), which involves compressing (or squeezing) one or more bones in the spine. The radiologist suggested performing balloon kyphoplasty, which repairs compression fractures, and provided the name and contact information of an interventional radiologist who could perform the procedure.
I examined the kyphoplasty further and found that most likely I had no or little pain after the procedure. I found this hard to believe, but I loved that it was a relatively simple, minimally invasive procedure.
The interventional radiologist was absolutely wonderful. He had just moved to Charleston four months ago, and I assumed that was a sign that everything was fine for me. They hope you get a doctor with empathy and a good bedside manner and I did. He explained everything I needed to know about the procedure and answered all of my questions.
During this outpatient procedure, he repaired both sides of the vertebrae so that they were at the same level. A balloon was placed inside and bone cement was introduced to rebuild the bone. He did the same on the other side. When I woke up after the procedure, I kept saying, “I don’t feel any pain.” It was wonderful. I would encourage everyone to try.
Little did I know that I would need his services again a few weeks later. An MRI follow-up showed another broken vertebra, my L2, in the lower back. I had another balloon kyphoplasty, but the vertebrae collapsed so badly that there wasn’t enough bone to lift. He could only fix one side, but it still stopped the pain.
My doctor said I might be in pain the next day from manually moving your vertebrae to get them into position. The pain felt like a bruise, but it wasn’t nearly what I had felt before. It was just amazing for me not to have this intense pain anymore.
It was important that I go to the doctor when I did. He told me that if your fracture is not detected within six to eight weeks of it occurring, balloon kyphoplasty will not repair it. Therefore, if you have severe back pain, don’t mess around – see a doctor as soon as possible.
If I have back pain now, it is more of a dull ache. It’s a far cry from the piercing, pinching pain I used to have. I am 71 years old and retired so just sitting or lying down and taking a mild pain reliever if my back hurts is no problem for me. I find it absolutely incredible that this is all I have to do to stop the pain.
After my procedure, I took medication to treat my osteoporosis again. I try to maintain good nutrition and take care of myself, and my doctors let me do some weight-bearing exercises to maintain my bone mass. I feel great. I’m just excited about my life now.
This procedure is not for everyone. A prescription is required. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of balloon kyphoplasty, and whether it is right for you.
This resource was produced with the assistance of Medtronic.