Gerrie’s Story: Pain Management Keeps Spine Surgery at Bay
After being told she would not be able to walk within a year without back surgery, retired nurse Geraldine “Gerrie” Sullivan sought a second opinion and found neuroradiologist and pain management specialist John Beerbower, M.D. With Dr. Beerbower’s help, she is not only walking, she is running her own antiques business and keeping up with her four grandkids.
Sullivan suffers from multiple spine-related disorders. She has scoliosis (side-to-side curvature of the spine), degenerative disc disease in both her cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) regions, osteoporosis (a condition in which the bones become weak and brittle) and was recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that is associated with arthritis and joint pain.
Meeting Dr. Beerbower
When Sullivan began seeing Dr. Beerbower three years ago, she could barely walk and was experiencing chronic pain in her neck and lower back. Dr. Beerbower listened to her describe her symptoms, took a complete medical history, reviewed her diagnostic images and performed a physical examination.
Sullivan was impressed with his thoroughness. “I am so complicated with my spine,” she says. “When I first saw Dr. Beerbower, he performed a complete, head-to-toe neurological exam. He didn’t leave a single stone unturned.”
Based on his findings, Dr. Beerbower recommended a multi-faceted plan to help manage Sullivan’s pain on an ongoing basis, carefully explaining each procedure to her. All are performed, as needed, on an outpatient basis under IV sedation at the Memorial Hermann Orthopedic and Spine Hospital.
A Treatment Plan
To target Sullivan’s irritated nerves and discs, Dr. Beerbower performs periodic steroid (cortisone) injections into her epidural space (the area surrounding her spinal cord, the nerves coming out of it and the disc), her facet joints (the joints in the spine that make the back flexible and enable bending and twisting) and her sacroiliac joints (the joints that lie next to the bottom of the spine, below the lumbar spine and above the tailbone).
About once a year, Dr. Beerbower performs radiofrequency ablation, a minimally-invasive procedure that uses radiofrequency energy to disrupt specifically-targeted nerves from sending pain signals to the brain. Using a special X-ray for guidance, Dr. Beerbower inserts a needle into her back or neck through which heat is emitted to ablate, or destroy, the nerves causing Sullivan’s joint pain.
And Sullivan’s pain management plan also includes nerve blocks, injections of small amounts of local anesthetic around targeted nerves.
Feeling Like Me Again
Together, these procedures dramatically reduce Sullivan’s pain. Whereas she was once barely able to walk, she is back enjoying her regular activities, running her business and chasing her grandkids. “I wanted to feel like me again,” says Sullivan. “And thanks to Dr. Beerbower, I do. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be walking.”
Helping people feel better is Dr. Beerbower’s life’s work. A radiologist by training, he gravitated early on to interventional radiology (as opposed to purely diagnostic radiology) because, he says, “I prefer solving patients’ problems. My goal with each patient is to try to find his or her source of pain and to treat it with minimally-invasive techniques.”
Dr. Beerbower describes Sullivan as “a very motivated patient,” which, he says is very important. She exercises, stretches and takes care of herself.
Sullivan is glad she pursued an alternative to surgery. “I know I’m never going to be completely pain free, but my goal is to continue to walk, without surgery. And Dr. Beerbower is helping me do that.”