Groundbreaking new procedure changing lives for people with chronic back pain

PITTSBURGH — Up until now, many people suffering from chronic back pain had only one option, surgery that would limit movement and permanently restrict their activities. But, that’s recently changed with a groundbreaking new procedure. We spoke with a father from Upper St. Clair who says it’s given him his life back.

“You don’t realize when you have that pain...how much pain you’re in until it’s gone,” said Nathan Snyder of Upper St. Clair.

From his days of playing college football at Harvard - to skiing triple black diamond mountains, Snyder has never been one for slowing down. But, his lower back pain was catching up with him - fast. It wasn’t until the father of four was running with his daughter on vacation four years ago, that things changed.

“I couldn’t lift my legs without severe pain,” recalled Snyder. “It just felt loose, as if my spine wasn’t totally stable...and that scared me.”

Snyder’s diagnosis was spinal stenosis. That’s when wear and tear leads to narrowing within the spine and pressure on the nerves. He thought his only option was spinal fusion. which is metal rods and screws to stabilize the back.

“You never get one fusion. You end up with multiple,” said Snyder.

I sat down with his surgeon, Dr. Donald Whiting, Chair of Neurosurgery at AHN. He explained why that’s often the case.

Dr. Whiting said me when you do one fusion, that puts more stress on the vertebrae above and below, which may lead to additional fusions in the future, limiting your movement, more and more.

“The hip used to be fused,” Dr. Whiting explained in comparison. “They would walk around kinda like a peg leg. Then the hip joints came around, and people got back to activity.”

And luckily for Snyder, that’s what also came around for the spine. It is called the “Total Posterior Spine System” - or TOPS. Dr. Whiting says it helps mimic the natural movement of the spine.

I asked if wear and tear would lead to a second one, like the fusion. Dr. Whiting said the long-term data is still being determined. That’s because TOPS is still fairly new. It just received FDA approval this past June. When Snyder signed on, it was still in FDA trials. But, he said he was willing to take a chance -- and it paid off.

“I can’t say enough about the outcome,” said Snyder.

He’s back to skiing, golfing and even running a “tough mudder” race.

“It was 11 miles over obstacles. In the middle of the woods, mud and it didn’t bother me at all,” said Snyder.

I asked Dr. Whiting if it’s typical to be able to return to such strenuous activity.

“After you’re healed, there really is no limit to what you do,” said Dr. Whiting.

“You don’t need to wait anymore. Go see the doctor,” Snyder encouraged.

AHN says many insurers do cover the surgery, including Highmark, but not all, so check with your insurance company.

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