Karen Melvin, aged 48, from Hornchurch, Essex had an X-Stop spinal implant operation at Spire Hartswood Hospital to alleviate her severe back pain. Here she tells the story of her diagnosis, treatment and recovery.
“It’s wonderful to wake up each day with no pain”
How long had you suffered back pain?
Altogether I was in pain for about a year but it got very bad after six months, around Christmas time. The pain was so bad I found it extremely difficult to walk and couldn’t get into any comfortable sitting position. I stopped going to the gym and was living on painkillers. I found myself getting increasingly irritable and miserable – the worst part was waking up every day knowing that the pain was not going to go away.
What help did you get initially?
None – I didn’t do anything at first; I just assumed it would get better with time. Then I went to a local osteopath but when my left leg started to go numb right down to the toe, the osteopath advised me to consult my doctor. About the same time, I started to get a “dropped foot” [when the toes and forefoot become floppy and potentially drop under the rest of the foot when walking]. My body was completely out of balance and I couldn’t walk properly. This really worried me and made me very nervous getting on and off the train on my commute to work as I felt I could fall at any time.
So what brought you to Spire Hartswood?
I have BUPA private medical insurance through my part-time job as a PA in a London recruitment agency. I had been to Spire Hartswood in Brentwood before and was happy with the care. I searched the Spire Hartswood website and saw that Mr Alagappan Sivaraman specialised only in back pain and spinal treatment. I came for a consultation and MRI scan and he confirmed that I was suffering from lumbar spinal stenosis and a prolapsed disc, which was affecting the nerve supply to my leg.
Mr Sivaraman offered me a nerve block treatment. I was relieved to be offered this treatment since it would bring respite from the pain and also give me some time to consider my options.
I came into Spire Hartswood for the day to have the nerve block performed in the operating theatre. It completely cleared the pain but my leg was still numb and I still had the footdrop. Nevertheless, it was a huge relief to be pain-free and gave me some time and space to consider what to do next – as I knew the nerve block was only a temporary solution for me.
How did you make the decision to have the X-Stop implant?
Mr Sivaraman was very friendly and approachable. He treated me very much as a whole person, which I appreciated. We discussed physiotherapy treatment and, although I persevered with this, my symptoms didn’t improve. We then discussed the X-Stop spinal implant which is a new treatment designed for exactly my condition. No-one I knew had even heard about X-Stop. I felt very wary of spinal surgery but when I learned that the procedure doesn’t involve the spinal cord, I was prepared to consider this option.
Mr Sivaraman showed me moving images of the operation and my first thought was “I wonder why this took so long to be invented.” My partner had a spinal fusion operation many years ago and this had severely limited the flexibility of his spine as well as being a major operation taking months of recovery time. But with the X-Stop implant acting as a “spacer” between the vertebrae [spinal joints], the spine remains flexible – as it is meant to be naturally.
To be honest, I didn’t do a lot of research. I accepted the information presented to me and, on the basis of the surgery being “minimally-invasive” with a short recovery time, I decided to go ahead. I wanted the opportunity to resume a better quality of life and having the X-Stop was my best chance of this. Also, I was aware that if I delayed having treatment there was a risk of the nerves to my leg and foot being permanently damaged. My insurer, BUPA, confirmed they would fund the operation and I agreed time off work with my employer.
How did you feel immediately after the operation?
I got up on the day after the operation with the help of the ward physiotherapist, Karen Tinkler. I didn’t need any pain relief injections; I was able to manage with just painkiller tablets. I was amazed that the feeling came back in the top of my leg and foot almost immediately. I had a good sense of balance and I could walk properly again. I moved very tentatively at first; even though I couldn’t actually feel the implant, I was “psychologically aware” of it. Naturally I was very tired after having a general anaesthetic but I persevered with the exercises given by Karen in the hospital as I knew these would benefit me.
I went home after two nights in hospital and immediately started physiotherapy to build up the muscles that had wasted in my leg during the months when I couldn’t walk properly. The hardest part was learning to bend again because my leg muscles had become very weak.
After months of not sleeping properly due to pain, I felt exhausted. Whilst I was off work after the operation, I put all my energy into a balanced pattern of walking, rest and exercises. I didn’t drive for several weeks but instead walked everywhere which was great rehabilitation for me.
Three months on, what impact has the X-Stop operation had on your life?
It’s like a miracle cure. I’m really pleased I had it done; it was the right decision for me. I know I might need to have bigger spacer implants in a few years time and I’m prepared for that. I am optimistic this won’t be necessary if I do plenty of exercise to help strengthen my back. I’m doing everything I want to do and am planning to start back at the gym soon. It is wonderful to wake up each day with no pain.
What advice would you give to another patient considering X-Stop?
I would say “don’t be too quick to make a decision”. Having the nerve block to stop the pain gave me breathing space to think about how I wanted to proceed. If you have any doubts, go back and talk to your consultant again. As for the operation itself, I would say “don’t be afraid of back surgery; stay positive; think of the benefits and recognise that you’ll need some help at home immediately after the operation.”