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Patient Education


Patient Stories

We offer comprehensive diagnosis and treatment options. Whether your treatment is medical or surgical, we are dedicated to applying leading-edge technology, the latest techniques and most effective therapies to help you feel, move and live better.

Patients who were treated at the Center for Spine Health include:

Valerie Stapleton – Fractured Vertebra
Breaking Free from Pain

A lengthy search for answers leads patient to Cleveland Clinic Center for Spine Health – and relief

For 30 years, Valerie Stapleton compromised her life due to pain that came and went in her neck and shoulder. From its start as discomfort, the pain escalated to tremendous suffering, leaving the self-taught artist unable to pick up a brush or function in everyday life.

Through the years, Ms. Stapleton, 67, sought medical opinions at various hospitals and received care near her home in Chillicothe, Ohio. Doctors told her that scans of her neck area indicated cervical dystonia, a neurological movement disorder. That explained why her head persistently and uncontrollably turned to the left. This condition was caused by a traumatic injury in 1979.

Constrained by her neck spasms, “I had a lot of embarrassment,” Ms. Stapleton recalls. “I didn’t like to go out in public or eat out in restaurants. I knew this was something I had to live with, so I accepted it and tried to overcome it.”

A Needed Referral

Ms. Stapleton suffered alone, as many artists do, and never relied on medication to ease her pain. “Artists are tough,” she says simply. “I didn’t focus on what I was feeling or what my body was doing—that was the only way I made it through the years and progression of pain.”

But Ms. Stapleton’s condition worsened in March 2009. Her weight had dropped from 123 to 102 pounds. She couldn’t eat and could barely walk. And, she was frustrated that repeated visits to doctors uncovered no definitive answers to why the pain in her neck had crept to her shoulder and disabled her so she couldn’t drive, do yardwork or create art. That summer, a good friend urged Ms. Stapleton’s doctor to refer her to Cleveland Clinic Center for Spine Health.

"Get Me to the Right Doctors”

In September 2009, Ms. Stapleton saw medical spine specialist E. Kano Mayer, MD. He and a team at the Center for Spine Health found a fracture in Ms. Stapleton’s neck—a loose vertebra that was causing the pain. She needed a cervical fusion, which involves stabilizing the neck with screws and pins, and a bone graft.

“They said the cervical fusion would be like a needle holding my vertebra to my skull,” says Ms. Stapleton, relieved that someone finally nailed the cause of her pain. “I was crying and I said, ‘I prayed that God would get me to the right doctors.’"

Ms. Stapleton prepared for surgery in November. She was startled at just how close to death she had come. “Dr. Mayer told me before surgery that no matter what I did, I had to be careful not to fall,” she says. “If I fell, I could have caused the spinal cord to break and I could have died instantly.”

Spine surgeon Ajit Krishnaney, MD, performed the procedure and within two days, Ms. Stapleton was ready to leave for physical therapy in Marietta, Ohio, closer to her home. “The doctor couldn’t believe how well I bounced right back after surgery,” she says.

A Life Reclaimed

Today, Ms. Stapleton is catching up on chores at home and getting accustomed to moving her body differently now that her neck is stabilized. Her shoulder pain is gone. “They literally saved my life and took away all that horrible pain,” she says.

Now, Ms. Stapleton doesn’t have to compromise her lifestyle. She isn’t back in front of her easel yet, but her artistic gifts include her way with words: She is also a poet. “I’m very grateful,” she says quietly. “There are not enough thank yous in the world for my doctors at Cleveland Clinic.”

Jan Kodish – Alternative Therapy for Back Pain
Fighting Severe Back Pain with Alternative Therapies

Jan Kodish always led a full, active life. She used to clock 200 to 300 miles on her bicycle every week. She has a border collie-German shepherd mix—“80 pounds of personal protection,” she jokes—that demands daily walks.

But over the years, her activity level dropped as deep back pain set in and restricted her lifestyle. “I could not do simple tasks comfortably, like go to the grocery store,” says Ms. Kodish, 54, of Mayfield Heights, Ohio. “I couldn’t even lean on the cart to give me momentum to do my shopping. I just could not stand up. It got progressively worse.”

Ms. Kodish never experienced a car accident or injury. The pain was unexplainable—until her internal medicine doctor, J. Harry Isaacson, MD, referred her to the Center for Spine Health at Cleveland Clinic, where she was seen by medical spine specialist Tagreed Khalaf, MD.

“Ms. Kodish presented for an evaluation of low back and leg pain,” says Dr. Khalaf. “Prior to her evaluation, she was unsure of the cause of her symptoms and her function was significantly limited.”

After an appropriate evaluation and work-up, Dr. Khalaf diagnosed a triple pain. Ms. Kodish had lumbar stenosis (narrowing of the spine), osteoarthritis and a bulged disc all in the same spot.

Relief without Drugs

Though Ms. Kodish has worked the last 35 years as an administrative secretary at Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute, she was unaware of the array of services available to her as a patient with severe back pain. Motivated to avoid medications and find alternative solutions for managing her pain, which she rated a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10, she was willing to try anything.

Dr. Khalaf first recommended physical therapy. When that alone did not provide relief, she prescribed cortisone shots to reduce inflammation caused by the bulged disc. At first, the injections eased Ms. Kodish’s pain—but not for long. Dr. Khalaf suggested trying acupuncture, the traditional Chinese medical practice of inserting and manipulating needles at various points.

“I was at the point where I would have done anything to relieve the pain, and I was desperate and hopeful that it would work,” Ms. Kodish says.

At first, she received acupuncture weekly in 15- to 20-minute sessions. Then, her treatments tapered to biweekly for a half-hour and, eventually, to a monthly regimen.

“I was put at ease by the doctor, who completely understood my arthritic pain and used charts to explain where they put the needles into different nerve points,” says Ms. Kodish, describing her first acupuncture experience with Daniel Mazanec, MD, Associate Director of the Center for Spine Health.

Ms. Kodish brought her own music and relaxed during the therapy, feeling comfortable and euphoric. “I slept well the next night and felt ongoing relief,” she says. “My pain level went down over the months from 9 to maybe a 3.”

Getting Back in the Game

Ms. Kodish wanted to pair acupuncture with physical therapy so she could get back to her active lifestyle. She enrolled in an eight-week pool therapy program through Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and worked one-on-one with a therapist. She also entered a core strengthening program to improve her posture and better align her back.

“It’s not just one thing that’s helping—it’s everything,” she says. “It’s like building a house.”

So, with Dr. Khalaf’s consent, Ms. Kodish layered another treatment on her regimen: an anti-inflammatory diet. The plan eliminates foods such as sugars, dairy products and meats that trigger inflammation. “I’m probably the healthiest I’ve ever been,” Ms. Kodish says. “For someone with a strong history of a sweet tooth, I feel calmer.”

A New Lifestyle

Today, Ms. Kodish adheres to her diet, swims five days a week and revisits acupuncture therapy when her pain flares up. She often can predict the “bad days” when her osteoarthritis triggers discomfort because weather is usually the culprit. But now she knows how to work through that pain.

“Every step of the way, I was grateful to have people here who were kind and could guide me to bring the horrible pain down to a manageable level,” she says of her care at Cleveland Clinic.

Ms. Kodish is biking again, though not competitively and in moderation. Meanwhile, her dog, Sam, enjoys evening walks. Ms. Kodish has learned to pace herself, and lifestyle changes have enabled her to control the pain without medications—her ultimate goal.

“Ms. Kodish has done well with the variety of treatment options available. Her significant improvement is a reflection of her dedication, hard work and compliance with her home exercise program,” Dr. Khalaf says.

Ms. Kodish has encouraging advice for others suffering from chronic pain: “Keep trying. Do not give up. The answer is not always in a pill.”

Sharlene Ice - Spine Tumor Surgery
Wearing her heart on her sleeve — almost

Successful spine surgery leads grateful patient to share her story with everyone she meets

Sharlene Ice has two favorite T-shirts — a blue one and a yellow one. They both say the same thing: “Special Thanks to Dr. Benzel and his team.”

She is referring to Edward Benzel, MD, the Cleveland Clinic neurosurgeon who successfully removed a large tumor from her spinal cord in September 2013.

“I wear my shirts at least once a week, because I just want to get the word out about Dr. Benzel,” says the 48-year-old West Virginia resident, tearfully. “He really touches my heart.”

Ms. Ice says she became attached to the doctor from the first time they met, in July 2013, when he sat with her and her husband, Mitch, for two hours explaining the severity of her situation and their options.

“If we didn’t understand it, he would break it down until we did,” she says. “You could just tell that man liked his job and he put his patients first.”

It was one of the few positive experiences she’d had since she learned — via an MRI — of the tumor in the lower neck region of her spine.

The first neurologist she saw, back home, had diagnosed her with carpal tunnel syndrome. After going through surgery for that, however, the symptoms persisted.

An orthopedic doctor sent her to a different neurologist for a second opinion. “I could just feel my body slowing down,” Ms. Ice says.

Then came the MRI. The couple got the bad news on their five-year anniversary. “I just never expected that,” she says, succumbing to emotion again. “I just thought it was a pinched nerve in my neck. It changed from there. My life just changed.”

Within a few days, she was at Cleveland Clinic, seeing Dr. Benzel. He wanted to do surgery within the month. “Such a tumor would have eventually paralyzed her, if it were not removed,” he says.

The Ices opted to wait another month to spend time together, not knowing what the future might hold. Ms. Ice becomes choked up remembering shopping for an acute-care or skilled nursing home, in the event that she wasn’t able to return home post-surgery.

But the risk-laden, nine-hour procedure — painstakingly dissecting the tumor and fusing the spine — proved a rousing success. “Dr. Benzel told Mitch he didn’t expect me to walk or talk, and I’ve been doing both ever since,” Ms. Ice says.

The relatively rare operation — performed by Cleveland Clinic staff eight to 12 times per a year — commonly has a positive outcome, according to Dr. Benzel.

Ms. Ice continues to have some difficulty using her hands for fine motor skills, such as tying shoes or opening a pop bottle, but she counts herself as blessed overall.

“I personally don’t think you can get any better than Cleveland Clinic, that’s my personal opinion,” says Ms. Ice, herself a former hospital employee in West Virginia, in emergency room patient registration. “I worked in a small hospital; you think you would get better treatment there… If Dr. Benzel leaves, they better get a good doctor, because we’re sticking with Cleveland Clinic.”

Alan Hall - Spondylolisthesis and Spinal Tumor Surgery
Successful Back Surgery Restores Patient's Pain-Free Lifestyle

Alan Hall knew he had a back problem. The pain alone was a sure indicator that something was wrong. But when local doctors in his hometown of Steubenville, Ohio, identified a relatively common degenerative problem in his lower back, they also alluded to the fact that there might be another, perhaps more complicated, issue as well.

That’s when the 59-year-old library director began to search Cleveland Clinic’s website for an answer. “I had friends who talked about how wonderful the Cleveland Clinic is,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is my situation, and I am allowed to do with it what I want.’ I felt like I needed to take control.”

Hall was immediately impressed with Cleveland Clinic’s outstanding customer service. “It was an incredible experience of concern,” he says about his first encounter.

After various examinations and a review of Hall’s tests and records, Ajit Krishnaney, MD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Spine Health explained that while Hall did have a degenerative slip (spondylolisthesis) in his lower back, he also had an intradural tumor adjacent to his spinal cord area. The two problems were unrelated, and it was extremely uncommon to have them both in the same area. But, both problems could be fixed. Surgery was scheduled for January 21, 2014.

“We typically deal with each of these problems—the degenerative slip and the tumor—but usually not both at once,” Dr. Krishnaney says. “I knew we could do each surgery independently, but we had never done both in the same patient at the same time.”

Hall knew he was in good hands with Dr. Krishnaney. “He has so much passion for what he does,” Hall says.

In fact, Hall was impressed with everyone at Cleveland Clinic. “I have never been to a medical facility where everything was so planned and so organized,” he says. Everybody went out of their way to show real human concern.”

“We try to spend a lot of time talking to patients and explaining everything,” Dr. Krishnaney says. “We share a philosophy that patients need to understand what’s happening to them in order to have a good experience.” For Hall, the seven-hour surgery was 100 percent successful, and today he lives pain-free. In May, he returned to his full-time duties as Director of The Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County.

Dr. Krishnaney attributes some of the successful outcome to Hall’s positive attitude and motivation to get well. While that may be true, Hall gives the credit to Dr. Krishnaney and his team: “I am so blessed that he was connected to my problem. Everyone I encountered at Cleveland Clinic was A-1.”

Patient Resources

Find information about the following topics:

Back Pain Treatment

Watch or listen to free audio and video files from Cleveland Clinic's Center for Spine Health about patient experiences, non-surgical options to relieve back pain and how to improve your posture.

Videos

Rodney Mullins:
A Lutheran Hospital Patient Story

Podcasts
Management of Back and Neck Pain

Web Chat with Deborah Venesy, MD

View the complete back and neck pain transcript below.

Back Pain: When Surgery is Appropriate

Web Chat with Russell DeMicco, DO

View the complete back pain surgery transcript below.

Osteopathic Manipulation for Back and Pelvic Pain

Web Chat with Fredrick Wilson, DO

View the complete osteopathic manipulation web chat transcript below.

Pain in the Neck! Management and Treatment Options for Cervical Spine Disorders

Web Chat with Thomas Mroz, MD

View the complete neck pain web chat transcript below.

Concussion
Sports Concussion - Your Silent, Invisible Opponent

Web Chat with Dr. Richard Figler and Robert Gray, MS, ATC

View the complete sports concussion web chat transcript below.

Osteoporosis & Vertebral Fractures
Osteoporosis and Vertebral Fractures

Web Chat with Tagreed Khalaf, MD

View the complete osteoporosis web chat transcript below.

Posture

Listen to our podcast to learn more about proper posture.

What is good posture?

Posture is the position in which you hold your body upright against gravity while standing, sitting or laying down. Good posture involves training the body to stand, walk, sit and lie in positions where the least strain is placed on supporting muscles and ligaments.

Proper posture:

  • Keeps bones and joints in the correct alignment so that muscles are being used properly.
  • Helps decrease the abnormal wearing of joint surfaces.
  • Decreases the stress on the ligaments holding the joints of the spine together.
  • Prevents the spine from becoming fixed in abnormal positions.
  • Prevents fatigue because muscles are being used more efficiently, allowing the body to use less energy.
  • Prevents backache and muscular pain.
  • Contributes to a good appearance.
Scoliosis

Scoliosis Fact Sheet

Speaking of Scoliosis for Adults and Children

Web Chat with Thomas Kuivila, MD and Richard Schlenk, MD

View the complete web chat transcript below.

Adult Scoliosis: Staying Ahead of the Curve

Web Chat with R. Douglas Orr, MD

Spinal Stenosis
Understanding Spinal Stenosis

Web Chat with a Cleveland Clinic Physician

View the complete spinal stenosis web chat transcript below.

Spine Surgery»

Help Me Fix It: Dr. Besser Goes in Search of Back Pain Relief
Spine Injections

Health Chat Transcripts

Read transcripts from past online health chats.

neurological online health chats