By Diana Lomont, Editorial Contributor
For Will Whitlock, life in Central Florida always had meant enjoying the outdoors and his favorite pastimes of hunting and fishing. But over the past three years, he spent more and more of his spare time sidelined on the sofa with chronic back pain. Some days it was an ache, other days it felt like somebody was “putting a screwdriver in my back,” he says. And then there were the multiple back spasms each day.
His back problems came on gradually, ever since playing sports in college. For more than 15 years, Whitlock sought relief from the pain. He tried physical therapy, cortisone shots and spinal fusion surgery. But whatever relief he found was only temporary. If he dared to go fishing, he ended up with back spasms that lasted for days, and pain that shot down his legs.
Last year, deciding to see if a long-term solution was available, Whitlock made appointments with several orthopedic and neurological surgeons. “The first doctor was a neurosurgeon who wouldn’t touch me and called my back a train wreck,” recalls the 60-year-old Lakeland resident. The second told Whitlock that six vertebrae would need to be bound together with rods, and the surgeon wasn’t equipped to perform the operation.
Finally, Whitlock connected with spine surgeon Dr. Robert Masson, who’s well-known for helping those with complex back ailments. Dr. Masson leads the NeuroSpine Center of Excellence at Orlando Health – Health Central Hospital. It’s the only spine surgery program in Central Florida that’s certified by The Joint Commission.
“He asked me what I wanted to get out of surgery,” recalls Whitlock. “I told him I want to be able to hunt and fish and do my chores again without being stuck on the couch. I don’t need to go run marathons, I just want to be functional and be able to enjoy the things that I like to do. And he said, ‘We can do that.’ ”
The Microsurgical Difference
Instead of operating on six vertebrae, Dr. Masson fused just two vertebrae in Whitlock’s lower back. His microsurgical neurological approach — using an operating microscope and miniaturized instruments — is less invasive than traditional orthopedic spinal surgery.
“Traditional spine surgery will have a wound of several inches that strips the muscle and ligament off of the spine above and below the surgical target,” explains Dr. Masson. “That causes future problems. When you do it microsurgically in a more focused fashion, you’re not causing your next problem.”
The procedure also included placement of a steel basket known as a “spine cage” in Whitlock’s spine where the worn-down disk used to be, with rods supporting the vertebrae on both sides. The spine cage contains bone graft and stem cell proteins to help Whitlock’s vertebrae grow through the cage, acting as a disc replacement. For six months following the surgery, Whitlock is also wearing a bone growth stimulator on his lower back for two hours a day.
“Honestly, the surgery to me is the easiest part of the journey,” says Dr. Masson, who also has undergone spinal surgery. “The most important part is the prolonged recovery of building confidence, strength, agility and movement.”
Whitlock’s recovery includes working with the rehabilitation team at Orlando Health – Health Central to regain his strength and retrain his muscles and posture.
“So far, I’m very pleased with the results,” says Whitlock at four months post-surgery. “I don’t have any pain going down my legs, and I don’t have the chronic pain. Instead of having multiple back spasms a day, I’ve only had one since surgery.
“I’m happy to be back at work, and I’m looking forward to going fishing again soon.”
Learn more about the NeuroSpine Center of Excellence at OrlandoHealth.com/NeuroSpine.