It’s common perception, explains Dr. Dennis Crandall, that spine surgery is a last resort — a surgery that often doesn’t even benefit the patient much at all.
But according to a study by Sonoran Spine Foundation and Research in Mesa, that’s all it is — a perception.
“There is a reason there is this stigma; we deserved it, we earned it,” said Crandall, an orthopedic surgeon who started Sonoran Spine Center in Mesa. “In the 1970s and ’80s there were a lot of surgeries done for unclear reasons with rudimentary techniques.”
While finishing up medical school, Crandall made the decision to do his residency in spine surgery.
“My own grandmother told me, ‘Don’t you know, you should never let them operate on your spine?’” Crandall recalled.
But since the late 80s or mid 90s, diagnosing the problems and treating those issues in a more precise, less invasive way displays how far spine surgery has come, Crandall said.
According to two studies by the Sonoran Foundation, a nonprofit arm connected with Crandall’s practice, those who had spine surgery were able to return to work and golf — and continued to be able to do so — five years after surgery, Crandall said.
“All of these athletes can get back to play,” Crandall said. “Whether you’re a weekend athlete or a high-level competitive athlete, you’re not always out of the game.”
Danelle Perata played golf for Arizona State University, redshirting as a freshman and beginning her competitive career in the 2003-04 school year.
In the summer of 2004, she was hit head-on by a drunk driver, injuring her back.
Because surgery seemed like such a drastic option, Perata said she first tried physical therapy.
Finally, after nearly half a year of physical therapy that proved unsuccessful, Perata moved on to spine surgery.
“It was really frustrating,” Perata said about her injury. “By the time I ended up at Dr. Crandall’s office, I was literally in tears. I remember saying to him, ‘Will you please fix me?’”
The decision to have spine surgery was a tough one to make, but ultimately the right one, she said. Almost exactly a year to the date after the accident, Perata had multilevel spinal fusion surgery.
“It was not easy, but it was worth it,” she said about the August 2005 procedure, and her recovery. “The first three to four months after surgery ... I was 21-years-old and going to class with a walker. It’s not an ideal situation.”
But through her physical therapy, things slowly started to improve, she said. Adjustments had to be made to her game and she did have to change the way she swings, she said.
While she was unable to play the fall season due to her recovery, she returned in February, in time for the spring golf season.
After graduating from ASU with a degree in justice studies and a minor in political science, Perata moved onto the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at ASU. Now, she works as an attorney in the Phoenix area.
Perata is hardly alone in her love of golf, Crandall notes. With hundreds of courses in the Valley alone, The sport is easily one of the most popular to play in Arizona. That’s why Crandall and his team targeted golfers in their study.
When it comes to spine surgery, there have been a number of improvements, he said. And there still is room for improvement.
“Every five years there is something that comes along that changes the way we approach and technology approaches spinal surgery,” Crandall said. “It’s still young enough that there is a lot of room for truly innovative thinking and design to advance the medicine.”
Doctors are more able to target exactly what causes back pain, he said. Rather than exploratory surgery, advanced imagery allows medical professionals to know exactly where the causes of pain are located and what is causing it. That means that when surgery is performed, surgeons know exactly what to expect.
“MRI scans are so beautiful and perfect,” Crandall said. “They show exactly what I’m going to see when I go in for surgery. Our imaging is so good, I know exactly what I am going to do. I plan for it and then just execute the plan during surgery.”
Better surgery translates to better results, and those results can be seen in the golf study, which shows that nearly all of those who had surgery returned to the game, had the same or similar handicap and played the same amount of games, Crandall said.
Of those who didn’t, it rarely was because of pain, Crandall said. Only 3 percent didn’t return to the game because of their spines.
Additionally, Crandall said that he has had patients come in for spine surgery with disability papers in hand.
“I hate that,” he said. “That is an admission of defeat. I tell them, ‘I’m not going to fill it out because you’re going to go back to work. There is no reason you are done being a productive citizen.’ Now I have some numbers to back that up. You’re going to get your life back again.”
And according to the research by the Sonoran Spine Foundation, they do.
Most people who had back surgery — nearly 90 percent regardless of what type of surgery they had — were able to return to work and continued to work five years later, Crandall said. Most were also able to return to the same level of work activity, even those who had strenuous jobs.
When it comes to being active today, the young lawyer said she still plays softball, golf and recently ran a half-marathon. Perata just doesn’t play or practice six days a week like she did in college.
While it’s possible that she may have to eventually have revision surgery because she is so young and active, Perata said she hasn’t had any problems so far.
“I would like to say that I’m not as good (at golf) because of the surgery, but that’s not true,” Perata said. “I’m not as good because I don’t play as much anymore.”
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