Jim Zwisler, a retired educator for Akron Public Schools, is no stranger to living with chronic pain.
“It started decades ago,” he says. “I would have episodes where my back would completely go out leaving me unable to walk.”
Through the years, Jim relied on conservative treatments like physical therapy, injections and medications to help alleviate some of his symptoms. But in January 2021, when he suffered another attack after taking down Christmas decorations, he decided he had had enough.
“My back and leg pain were so bad I wasn’t able to walk,” he says. “I realized this way of life was no longer serving me.”
Jim’s pain management physician, who he had been seeing for over 20 years, prescribed cortisone injections. He also cautioned him that it was time to face reality — his condition wasn’t going to get better on its own.
“I’m an extremely active person. I like to garden, and I walk every day,” says Jim. “I was having pain shooting down my legs all the way to my toes. The only way I could get the pain to cease was to put my legs up.”
With his quality of life on the line, Jim agreed when his pain management physician suggested he consult a surgeon. After meeting with Jacob Hoffmann, MD, a board-certified spine surgeon at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, Jim felt more at ease.
“I wanted a young surgeon who was on the cutting edge of medicine,” says Jim. “He told me my problems were related to spinal stenosis and slipped discs. I appreciated his honesty and thorough explanation of the benefits and risks of surgery.”
Dr. Hoffmann says a typical first-time consult would include prescribing conservative treatments before discussing surgery with a new patient, but Jim had already exhausted all conservative options available to him.
Although Jim was 72 at the time, Dr. Hoffmann bases his surgical recommendation on someone’s overall health and ability to withstand the rigors of surgery — not just their age.
“Jim didn’t have any heart or lung disease,” he says. “Overall, he was healthy and living independently. He just wanted to regain his quality of life. All of these factors made him an excellent surgical candidate.”
Prior to surgery with Dr. Hoffmann, patients meet with a presurgical team who review medications, arrange all pre-op testing, teach the patient how to change the surgical dressing and go over exercises that can be performed safely following surgery.
On June 15, 2021, Dr. Hoffmann performed a spinal fusion to stabilize Jim’s slipped discs and decompress his spinal stenosis to relieve pressure on the nerves that were causing pain. Jim’s surgery lasted two hours and he was hospitalized for three nights.
“There is no such thing as bed rest following one of my surgeries,” says Dr. Hoffmann. “I want my patients up and walking immediately after surgery so they can return to their activities of daily living as soon as possible.”
That philosophy was fine by Jim.
“I wasn’t overdoing it, but I also wasn’t pampering myself,” says Jim. “It took a while to work through recovery while my stitches were healing. Once that happened, I was back to my walking routine one month after surgery.”
Jim’s recovery went so smoothly that he was off all pain medications within a few days of discharge from the hospital. Jim even chose to do his own physical therapy at home.
“The most important thing for patients to remember after surgery is to not stress the surgical site,” says Dr. Hoffmann. “That means no heavy lifting. Once a patient is off narcotics they can start driving again.”
Knowing what he knows now, Jim wishes he would have pursued surgery much earlier in his life.
“This surgery was well worth the effort,” says Jim. “I’m thankful to have my quality of life back and to be able to do the things I love without pain. For anyone worried about being too old for surgery, you are never going to be any younger than you are today.”
“Age is just a number. I look at a patient holistically,” says Dr. Hoffmann. “They have to be in good enough health to withstand this type of surgery.”
Prior to scheduling surgery, patients may be advised to address modifiable risk factors such as losing weight, getting chronic conditions like diabetes under control, or quitting smoking to reduce their chances of complications and improve their outcome.
Orthopaedic & Rheumatologic Institute,