Overcoming Back Pain without Surgery

Authored by: Dr. Christopher Good

I’m sure you’ve heard this before and maybe thought it yourself — if you go to a surgeon, they’re just going to recommend surgery. While I can’t speak for all surgeons, data clearly shows that isn’t always the case. There are so many treatment options to help patients dealing with back and neck pain or injury these days that surgery does not always have to come into play. In fact at VSI, 90% of our patients get better without surgery.

But the idea that all surgeons want to do is surgery remains a widely held belief by many. It’s one of my favorite myths to bust. Because the truth is — there are plenty of surgeons out there, like me, who are far more invested in your recovery than a particular procedure. Chris has been pleasantly surprised to discover that on his journey to a pain-free life. Here’s his story.

Chris’ Story

chris clayton

Chris had been an active guy. He competed in an amateur triathlon, did boxing competitions, weightlifting, snowboarding and more. Then, in 2010 he herniated a disc and his life changed. He went from living a full and active lifestyle, to being limited by pain, fear of more injuries, and constant searching for a remedy. He tried everything you can imagine to find relief, from chiropractic care, to massage, to acupuncture, to anti-inflammatory injections, to PRP, to prolotherapy, to physical therapy, to anti-inflammatory medications, to yoga/stretching, to muscle relaxers, to back braces — the list went on and on. Finally a doctor at another practice told him that a spinal fusion was the only way he’d get relief. He came to me for a second opinion, and when he did, he was in a pretty low place.

“I couldn’t do my favorite sports anymore — like boxing or wrestling or lifting weights. Even worse than that — everyday tasks like getting out of bed, tying my shoes, picking something up off the floor, stepping off a curb, carrying a bag of groceries — it all became so painful that on bad days I had to use a walking cane. I became a father for the first time and was forced to contemplate a future in which I would not be physically able to teach my son how to ride a bike, shoot a basket, wrestle on the couch, or even have the mobility to pick him up out of his crib. I was very frustrated,” he recalls.

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When he came to me, I discovered he did in fact have a badly herniated disc and spinal fusion seemed like the right solution to bring him pain relief. As part of the work-up for that procedure, I sent him to get intensive physical therapy and work with an athletic trainer as a form of prehab — a way to focus on being as physically strong as possible going into a procedure, to help with healing and recovery when you come out of the surgical procedure. But then an unexpected thing happened.

“Miraculously, I started to have meaningful improvement. I had tried physical therapy from a variety of providers many times before, but VSI’s spine-centric, expert physical therapy simply produced results where others had not,” Chris explains. “VSI’s physical therapists and athletic trainer, in close consultation with Dr. Good’s medical staff were able to give me and my care team a precise diagnosis and develop an effective and personalized treatment plan.”

When Chris came back to see me a few weeks later, his pain had decreased and he was feeling better. But he admits — he was expecting me to tell him we should push ahead with a spinal fusion anyway. I’ll let him tell you what happened instead.

“Dr. Good is a surgeon by trade and I’m sure he would make much more money if he pushed me towards an expensive spinal fusion surgery or spinal disc replacement. But he didn’t do that. He listened to the progress I was making, consulted with VSI’s physical therapists and athletic trainer, and he made the best decision for my care,” Chris explains. “He opted not to recommend near-term spinal surgery, but rather he directed me and my care team to more deeply explore what gains I could make with VSI‘s physical therapists and athletic trainer.”

That was three years ago and I’m happy to report — Chris continues to do well and hasn’t needed surgery. When he talks about what he can do now, it’s a combination of being physically active — he’s training for something called the “125% challenge” on his 50th birthday in 2024. It’s a weightlifting challenge involving 10 weightlifting movements with a weight load of 125% of a persons’ body weight. Even more important than that — he says he’s doing all the things he always dreamed of doing as a Dad — from having light saber battles at his son’s birthday party to taking his daughter trick-or-treating at as many houses as she’d like.

“I am living proof that it’s possible to go from hobbling around on a cane and afraid to pick up groceries out of the trunk of my car to performing reasonably well in a challenging series of high intensity, strength exercises,” Chris says. “I am so grateful.” Here are his tips for others looking for a surgeon invested in patients over procedures.

  • With back or spinal problems, people often grasp for a single solution to a perceivedsingle problem. However, in reality, spinal problems are most often a combination of risk factors, accumulated injuries, and spinal imperfections that require a comprehensive, well-sequenced treatment plan that draws on a variety of care options, and is constantly updated based on the patient’s performance.
  • Find a place invested in improving patients’ lives through whatever combination of care options produces the best result, not delivering one particular type of treatment over another.
  • Look for a place where patient care is individualized, flexible, and willing to adapt — not just to the latest science and newest treatment options but also to a patient’s response to treatment too.

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