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Bones & Joints Inspired Stories

Finding Relief from Chronic Back Pain

Last updated: February 17, 2023

I can’t believe my quality of life. I’m doing things I hadn’t been able to do for years.

Kay Reetz, ThedaCare Patient and Back Pain Sufferer

Kay Reetz lives to be active.

These days, Kay relishes her role as a grandmother to seven and great-grandmother to five. In her younger days, she and her husband raised four children and took in 34 permanent foster children, many of whom were mentally or physically challenged.

Outside the home, the Neenah resident worked for several years on the staff of Wisconsin State Sen. Mike Ellis. Between 1995 and 2002, Kay lived in Florida and worked as a producer for a radio-TV show host. For a time, she even hosted her own national radio show, “Kay, the Consumer Crusader.”

Decreased Quality of Life

About three years ago, Kay began to experience chronic, debilitating back pain. It reached a point where she had to use a walker or motorized scooter to get around.

“Even trying to tie my shoes was a chore,” she says. “It hurt just going out the door to go to the store or sitting at home and watching church on TV.”

Kay, who loves to sew, teamed up with her sister to make face masks early in the pandemic. Eventually, though, the discomfort in her lower back made it too difficult to sit at her sewing machine.

The pain was also affecting Kay’s mental health. She describes herself as a positive and optimistic person, but she found herself becoming depressed. When she and her husband visited their daughter in Florida in fall of 2021, she could barely enjoy the trip because she was in so much pain.

Hitting a Dead End

Before Kay came to ThedaCare Medical Center-Orthopedic, Spine and Pain, she received twice-monthly back injections at another orthopedic facility. They weren’t working, and the cost was adding up. She’d also tried lidocaine patches and pain medication, to no avail. Finally, her primary care provider suggested she see a pain management specialist.

By that point, Kay was frustrated and skeptical about trying another option, but she finally decided to go for it.

“I wasn’t me anymore, and I had to do something,” she says. “There was a point where I didn’t have a quality of life, and I just couldn’t sit back and say, this is what it’s going to be for me the rest of my life.”

Spinal Cord Stimulation

When Kay, 73, began to work with Dr. Matt Fischer, a pain management specialist with ThedaCare Orthopedic Care, everything changed.

“He talked with me and my husband about all the alternatives we had,” Kay says. “He was very professional and took the time to explore the best option for me.”

After conducting several tests, Dr. Fischer recommended a spinal cord stimulator as the next step for Kay. A spinal cord stimulator is a device implanted beneath the skin that’s used to treat certain types of chronic pain. It sends low levels of electrical stimulation toward the spinal cord.

The spinal cord stimulator system consists of electrodes, or leads, placed in the epidural space behind the back bones. The electrodes are connected to and powered by a pulse generator system that is implanted beneath the skin. It’s similar to what you might find in a cardiac pacemaker system. The device uses electrical energy to communicate to the nerves as they’re coming down into the spinal cord.

“I think of it kind of like if you’ve ever hit your funny bone. What do you do? You rub the area to cover up the pain with something that’s non-painful,” Dr. Fischer says.

Spinal cord stimulation is similar. It uses electrical signals to cover up the painful signals. The electrical signals are imperceptible to the patient.

“One of the nicest parts of the spinal cord stimulator system is it’s something you get to try first before you have it implanted,” Dr. Fischer says.

Before implanting the device, the patient undergoes a stimulator trial, which typically lasts five to seven days. This gives the individual time to test the device and evaluate its effectiveness at managing pain, both at rest and during activity. Typically, a 50% or greater reduction in pain is considered a successful trial, and implantation of the device is recommended. The goal is to provide long-lasting relief.

During her trial period, Kay experienced significant pain relief. Afterward, the pain came roaring back. She knew right away that she wanted to proceed with the surgery.

Undergoing the Procedure

In June 2022, Kay underwent surgery to have the spinal cord stimulator implanted. The outpatient procedure took an hour or two, and she went home the same day. Kay did experience some discomfort as she was recovering from the surgery, but she took it slow and felt better within the first week.

Spinal cord stimulators allow patients to adjust certain aspects of the stimulation using a small, remote-control-like device. People commoly carry the device in their purse or pocket.

Prior to the procedure, Dr. Fischer talked through all the risks and benefits. Afterward, he helped Kay learn to use the device to manage her pain.

“He said, ‘This is going to be how you react to it and what you do with what we’re offering you. And I’m here for you, and I’ll go every step of the way with you,’” she says.

Kay also works directly with a representative from Abbott, the manufacturer of the spinal cord stimulator. The rep can help with adjustments to programming or other questions that patients may have about the device.

“This person will stay with me for as long as I need them,” she says. “One text and I get a response back from them right away.”

A Different Person

In the weeks and months that have followed Kay’s surgery, she’s experienced many positive changes.

“I can’t believe my quality of life,” she says. “I’m doing things I hadn’t been able to do for years.”

These days, Kay is back at the sewing machine. She can also take walks, hold her great-grandchildren, make it through stores with ease, visit friends and neighbors, and socialize with people at her beloved church.

“I lost weight, got my hair cut, and put makeup on. I started doing things I didn’t do before because I didn’t have any reason to,” Kay says.

Her friends and loved ones have noticed the change. 

“I enjoy even going to Walmart and walking around and having people say, ‘Oh my God, Kay, look at you walking!’” she says.

Kay credits Dr. Fischer for guiding her to the right solution. She’s since gone on to see other providers at ThedaCare Medical Center-Orthopedic, Spine and Pain. Dr. Fischer recently referred her to Physician Assistant Justin Guzman, who gave her an injection for knee pain.

“I know now that I have a place to go if I have a problem, and I don’t have to feel apprehensive about that,” she says. “I finally have a quality of life, and I know that’s going to continue because I have the right people working with me.”

Pain affecting your quality of life?

Learn more through our online low back pain seminar or make an appointment today.

Tags: back pain finding relief orthopedics

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