When Karen Keith-Ford began searching for relief from her lower back pain, she didn’t think she would ever see a day without pain again.
Little things most people take for granted—like the ability to stand up and make dinner—seemed forever out of reach.
“I had to sit in a chair to cook dinner,” remembers Karen, 53, an HR coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. “I just didn’t think I would ever be perfectly normal again.”
Karen’s treatment journey followed a long and winding path that led her through a number of specialists’ care all the way to where she is now: pain-free.
A Cry For Help
The pain started in August 2014. She was having constant, horrible lower back pain that radiated down her left leg. The numbness and tingling was so intense that Karen could hardly walk without her leg seizing up.
No matter what she was doing, Karen could not find relief.
“I could not get a full night’s sleep,” she says. “I would have to get up to stand in the middle of the night because of the pain. And I couldn’t turn over in bed without severe pain waking me up.”
It all came to a head one evening when Karen had overnight guests. She gave her guests her bed, and she slept in a daybed. In the middle of the night, Karen needed to move her legs, but she couldn’t shift around easily. Then, excruciating pain started in her lower back.
Not wanting to disturb her guests, Karen tried to work through the pain. “But I couldn’t control it,” she explains. By the time they tried to help her out of the bed, she had cramped up and slid to the floor in tears.
“It was just really ridiculous,” she says. “That’s when I knew I had to do something.”
The Journey Begins
Karen’s first stop for recovery was an acupressurist, who applies pressure to certain areas of the body to relieve pain. But this only aggravated her pain.
She went to a chiropractor next, but found treatment ineffective there as well.
After that, she headed to physical therapy. By then it was January—almost six months since her pain began. She had some X-rays taken, but nothing really pointed to what was causing her lower back pain.
As with the acupressure, Karen felt physical therapy was doing more harm than good.
In April, Karen had an MRI that would finally identify the source of her pain: a cyst near a facet joint in her lower back.
Facet joints give the spine flexibility, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
The cyst was also pinching a nerve that ran through her leg, which was why she was struggling to walk.
A Shot Of Hope
After going over the MRI results with her, the physician who had ordered the test sent Karen to Penn Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.
After looking at the MRI, and evaluating her mobility limitations and level of pain, her orthopaedic surgeon decided that a steroid injection would be the best course of treatment.
In May, Karen returned to the office for the injection. This treatment helped ease the intense back pain for Karen Keith-Ford with a procedure performed under local anesthesia.
Her team employed an imaging technique called fluoroscopy to safely deliver the medication to target areas, he says.
Fluoroscopy uses contrast dye to provide a real-time picture of what’s happening inside the patient, explains the US Food and Drug Administration.
“There was no need to remove the cyst,” her surgeon explained. “It’s not like it’s cancer. It’s a fluid-filled sac of inflammation.”
After that first injection, Karen’s pain was noticeably less intense. And after nine months of suffering, she felt well enough to be active again. Despite being told to take it easy in those first few days, Karen started in on some housework.
“Because I had a minute of relief, I started washing clothes,” she says. Karen’s cyst was inflammatory, which means adding physical stress too soon—like doing laundry—would aggravate it.
A few days later, Karen’s intense pain returned.
Finally, A Life Without Lower Back Pain
Karen went back for a second injection in August.
“I could tell the difference while rolling out of the operating room,” she says. “When I was back in recovery afterward, I honestly felt like a different person. That pain was gone. It still amazes me. I could tell the difference right then.”
It was almost a year to the day since the pain had begun.
Today, Karen tries not to worry about the pain returning. Instead, she celebrates her regained mobility by doing things she had enjoyed before the pain began—like working on a volunteer construction project.
“I felt like it was a miracle,” says Karen. “I got my life back.”
Karen will need to continue to do her exercise program, eat healthy, maintain normal body weight, and practice disciplined low back body mechanics to maintain her health and function.
Hopefully the cyst will not recur, but if it does, she knows that the Penn Spine Center is ready to help.