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Spinal Fusion on the Rise Despite Claims of Ineffectiveness, Part Two

Earlier this week, we discussed spinal fusion surgery, a surgical procedure in which a spine surgeon fuses together several of the vertebrae of a patient suffering from a degenerative disc disorder or a similar illness. Despite the claims that this procedure will reduce or completely eliminate chronic back pain, many patients are finding exactly the opposite to be true, and are lodging complaints and filing medical malpractice lawsuits claiming that the surgery made their back pain worse, not better.

One such patient is Mikel Hehn, who had spinal fusion surgery after years of suffering from spinal disc degeneration. Two years after Hehn's surgery, during which a surgeon fused together three vertebrae in his spinal cord, he says the pain in his neck, lower back, and legs is so severe that he can no longer work. Now he relies on powerful prescriptions to get by, including Oxycodone for pain, Soma to sleep, and Lexapro for the depression brought on by his new condition.

Compared to others, Hehn's condition is relatively mild. Jean Kingsley underwent a third spinal fusion after two earlier surgeries left her with back pain. In her third drastic surgery, a surgeon fused 13 vertebrae along her entire spine in a day-long procedure. The 57-year-old woke up paralyzed from the waist down, forced to use a wheelchair and utilize the services of a home health aide to perform everyday tasks such as bathing. In a way, Kingsley says, her surgery could technically be considered a success. "Now I don't feel any pain," she said, because "I'm paralyzed."

Kingsley filed a medical malpractice lawsuit against her surgeon, but after a judge found that her surgeon was not negligent, Kingsley was ordered to pay almost $50,000 in attorney's fees. She is currently appealing the ruling.

Source: Bloomberg, "Doctors Getting Rich With Fusion Surgery Debunked by Studies", Peter Waldman and David Armstrong, 5 January 2011

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