Groundbreaking new surgery for lower back pain changing lives: “Never seen a tool this powerful”

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FRANKLIN -- A groundbreaking clinical trial on lower back pain could lead to relief for hundreds of thousands of people.

It's a 25-minute surgery that's already changing lives.

Jen Christianson

Jen Christianson

These days, you'll find Jen Christianson at the Wisconsin Athletic Club in Menomonee Falls swimming laps. Three years ago, you wouldn't find her anywhere near a pool. The 41-year-old who once ran marathons and taught zumba classes was practically bed-ridden.

"I could barely sit in the car. Tears were constant. The pain was so severe," said Christianson.

Jen Christianson

Jen Christianson

Christianson had debilitating back pain. The source of her pain was hard for doctors to pinpoint. MRIs were done on her spine, but everything looked normal.

Eventually, a doctor traced her pain to the SI joint, which is located between the base of the spine and the hip socket. Christianson's only hope for relief was signing up for a new clinical trial.

Dr. Clay Frank

Dr. Clay Frank

Dr. Clay Frank was the trial's lead investigator. Frank is an orthopedic spine surgeon at Wheaton Franciscan's Midwest Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Franklin.

Frank says pain in the SI joint can be felt just below the belt line on the back, in the spot where some people may have a dimple.

"We examined Jennifer. That was hard because she was so sick. It was tough to look at her.  I mean, she was just so miserable," said Dr. Frank.

Christianson enrolled with nearly 150 other people in the study. She was among half of the trial's patients randomly selected for SI joint fusion surgery.

"It was a higher power. It was so meant to be," said Christianson.

SI joint fusion surgery

SI joint fusion surgery

SI joint fusion surgery is a new, minimally invasive procedure that inserts three titanium bars into the joint. The surgery involves a small incision, pushing the muscle fibers apart to access the bone, then inserting three wires to guide the triangular bars into place. The titanium bars are then hammered into the joint with a four pound mallet.

Dr. Frank found the number of patients reporting pain relief after surgery was 80 percent. Among the non-surgical group, the number of patients with pain relief was just 20 percent.

SI joint fusion surgery

SI joint fusion surgery

"I've been doing this for 20 years. I have never seen a tool this powerful," said Dr. Frank.

Often, patients suffering from SI joint pain have had a lumbar spine fusion procedure in the past. Christianson had a flexible lumbar fusion in 2006 and bounced back from surgery, but the SI pain appeared seven years later.

SI joint fusion surgery

SI joint fusion surgery

Christianson's surgery was two-and-a-half years ago, and she says her joint pain relief was immediate. She says one year after the surgery she was exercising regularly and back to her healthy way of life.

Dr. Clay Frank

Dr. Clay Frank

As a thank you, she gave Dr. Frank a signed cover of Neurosurgery Journal. His study made the journal cover and was honored by its editor.  Christianson wrote on the cover "thanks for fixing me and giving me my life back."

Dr. Frank says the real heroes are the patients who signed up for the study.

For Christianson, getting her life back means getting into the swimming pool with her seven-year-old daughter, Maya. It's a moment that once seemed an impossible one.

"My life today, it's changed totally," said Christianson.

Dr. Frank says the SI joint is the source of suffering for 25% of patients with lower back pain. However, he says most physicians aren't trained to recognize the problem. He says doctors may overlook the SI joint and just look at the spine.

Dr. Frank says more insurance carriers are starting to cover the procedure, including United Healthcare. He says Medicare has announced it will cover SI joint fusion starting on April 1st.

"We are seeing change, a seismic shift in the thinking about treatment for lower back pain," said Dr. Frank.

The study was conducted at 19 different spine centers around the country. Twenty-one of the surgeries were done at both Midwest Orthopedic Specialty Hospital and Midwest Spine and Orthopedic Hospital.

9 comments

  • Carrie Melnik

    I had this surgery done, this was the first surgery out of the multiple ones i’ve had that actually gave me some relief. Thank you Dr. Frank!

  • TOM B

    I had my surgery in Feb 2014, his procedure actually works. A lot quicker recovery as compared to my back surgery.. Doctor Frank is the most caring Doctor a patient could ask for.. I’m glad I was part of this study.
    Thank you Doctor Frank and his Study Nurse, Nurse Tracy Mente.

    Tom B

  • Kraken Therapy LLC

    Kraken Therapy is for those who have mild to severe low back pain who have exhausted all options and who are trying to avoid surgery. Find us on Facebook, Twitter or visit our website for more information.

  • Sara

    He is amazing and so compassionate as they come. You can’t find doctors like him anymore. He will take the time to get to know you and will always do the best treatment for you too.

  • Judy

    I have had surgery performed by Dr. Frank 2 years ago. As a nurse, who worked in ICU for 20yrs I choose Dr. Frank after very careful research and as a nurse of almost 50 years I believe that Dr Frank is one of the BEST ORTHOPEDIC DOCTORS I have ever met( and I have dealt with many) My surgery and recovery was without issue and I would TOTALLY TRUST HIS JUDGEMENT AND TECHNICAL ABILITY for any surgery I would need performed. His team works together for the best outcome for each patient. Thank you Dr. Frank for your dedication to the highest quality of patient care. The Patient is always your highest priority.

  • Emily B

    Chiropractors treat SI pain everyday, non-invasively, successfully and much cheaper! Do research, get second opinions. The joint is designed to move for a reason. I’m glad it helped the people who have had it but it could have been unnecessary had other options been explored.

  • Tootie Welker

    I had this surgery done in 2012. I have Ehlers Danlos hyper mobility. I asked the surgeon if I should see my chiropractor the day before to make sure I’m in alignment and he said, oh know, we do that on the table. Wrong answer. He was a surgeon. While my left SI definitely is less painful, my right is worse. And even worse, I now can’t go see my chiropractor and have my SI joint aligned for a few days relief. It is now forever fused out of alignment and I have no recourse. I do agree that this was always my problem – I tried prolo therapy to tighten up the ligaments to hold my SI in place better – but before this SI fusion was around I was fused L4-5-S1, even though I believe it was the SI joint all along and even though PT, chiropractors and massage therapists all said my SI was extremely loose, since there was no fix at the time the surgeons just told me the SI didn’t move enough to cause all the pain I had. 4 years later my L3 failed but it was also when the SI joint fusion became available in 2012. It might of helped if I’d seen my chiropractor first to make sure I was properly aligned.

  • John

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s nice to see such a short, minimally invasive procedure making a significant difference already. It’ll be interesting to see what similar surgeries come about as a result of this success.

Comments are closed.