When Minimally Invasive Surgery Relieves Decades of Lower Back Pain (video)

Spine surgery makes difference for former triathlete who is back to being physically active

Spine surgery makes difference for former triathlete who is back to being physically active

Mark Erwin is passionate about endurance sports but the former triathlete could not endure his chronic back pain condition as it got worse with age.


By the time he was 40, he had given up running, swimming was becoming painful and he could not stand too long without pain. “Something had to be done,” he said. 


That something turned out to be minimally invasive spine surgery.


In this video, Erwin and Scripps orthopedic surgeon James Bruffey, MD, join San Diego Health host Susan Taylor to discuss how Erwin came to have spinal fusion surgery and the world of difference it has made in his life.


“My back has not felt this good in more than 30 years,” said Erwin, 64, who remains physically active. “It’s a miracle.”

What is back pain?

Back pain is a common problem that affects eight out of 10 people at some point in their life, especially as they get older. It can be caused by a number of factors, including overuse, injuries and arthritis.


Most of the time, back pain lasts for a day or two and can be treated with rest, ice and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications. “Most back pain episodes are self-limiting. They go away on their own, usually within 24 to 48 hours,” Dr. Bruffey said.


Surgery is always a last option but may be necessary for specific conditions, said Dr. Bruffey, who is the associate division head of orthopedic surgery at Scripps Clinic and medical director for spine care at Scripps Health.


Many of these conditions can be treated with minimally invasive surgical techniques.

What is spondylolisthesis? What is spinal stenosis?

Erwin was diagnosed with spondylolisthesis, a condition in which one vertebrae slips forward on top of another, and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that causes pressure on the spinal cord. In Erwin’s case, both conditions were the result of arthritis of the spine.


Erwin initially underwent non-fusion spine surgery to relieve pressure on his spinal cord. It provided relief for a few years, but it was not a permanent solution for his shifted spine condition.


“His main problem became the instability of his spine from his arthritis,” Dr. Bruffey said. Spinal fusion became an option to help restore that stability, he said.

What is spinal fusion surgery?

Spinal fusion is a surgical technique that uses bone graft material to fuse two or more bones or vertebrae in the spine so there is no motion between them and as a result no pain. It is an option when the source of pain is motion that occurs in the part of the spine that is arthritic.


For Erwin, the decision to undergo spine fusion surgery came with the understanding that plates, screws and rods would be implanted to help hold his spine still. He was also aware that advances in spinal care had made surgery less invasive and more effective.


Compared to standard open surgeries, minimally invasive procedures result in less blood loss, less pain and reduced scarring due to smaller incisions.


“The recovery time has been shortened dramatically,” Dr. Bruffey said. “The hospital stay time has become shorter with the better technology that we have available and the better techniques,” he said.

Recovery after spine surgery

Erwin left the hospital after three days and was walking around his neighborhood in La Jolla within a week. “Within two weeks I was out of the woods. I had no pain at all,” he said.


These days, he is back to challenging himself physically in the one endurance sport that he continues to be passionate about: swimming. “I swim Masters four or five days a week, which is a pretty demanding program,” he said referring to a special class of competitive swimming.


Swimming is the type of low-impact, but still challenging exercise that he looks forward to doing without pain.


“I’m really grateful for this procedure. I got my life back," Erwin said about his decision to get spine surgery. "It’s humbling to know that I am the beneficiary of all this."