Regaining mobility after minimally invasive spine surgery

Angelina Crenshaw James Mok universal

Angelia Crenshaw and Dr. James Mok 

Angelia Crenshaw loves to travel. She has a busy social life, enjoying church, shopping and visiting with loved ones. But three years ago, at age 50, the Morgan Park (Chicago) resident experienced shooting pain in her legs. She was prescribed medications that helped but didn’t stop the pain.

“I could walk, but not a lot. When I shopped I’d go inside the store, then look for a place to sit down,” said Crenshaw. “My social life really dwindled.” An ultrasound on her legs didn’t reveal anything. She tried injections at a pain clinic, but the relief only lasted for a few weeks. Physical therapy helped, but the leg pain returned. Crenshaw started using a cane, but walking became more difficult.

“The only relief I could get was when I lay flat,” said Crenshaw. She grew increasingly depressed about the pain that was having such a huge effect on her life. “I thought I’d never be able to walk again.” Finally, while having lunch with her son in June 2014, the pain became overwhelming.

Crenshaw's family drove her to the University of Chicago Medicine emergency room. There, she met James Mok, MD, a board-certified orthopaedic spine surgeon with extensive training in minimally invasive surgery.

'The minimally invasive lens'

In any patient with a lumbar spinal disorder, Mok starts with non-surgical treatment options when possible. “We first try to control the pain with injections, medication and physical therapy, all of which Angelia had tried. When these aren’t effective we talk about surgery to make room for nerves and to stabilize the bones that are moving abnormally,” Mok explained.

“I do just about everything I want to do now. I don’t have any pain in my legs and you can barely see the surgical marks," she said.

Crenshaw had other health conditions, including lupus, obesity, diabetes and a history of stroke, which made traditional spine surgery too high-risk to safely recommend. However, as a minimally invasive spine surgeon, Mok was able to offer Crenshaw a lower-risk option that would work well for her.

Mok diagnosed two common lumbar spine conditions in Crenshaw: spondylolisthesis, a slippage of the spine, where bones aren’t moving normally; and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of space in the spine, which causes nerve compression.

“With minimally invasive surgery, we achieve the same things as traditional open surgery but without a lot of the risks, such as blood loss and increased chance of infection,” Mok explained. The recovery time is also faster compared to traditional surgery.

Several months later, Crenshaw underwent a three-hour surgery at UChicago Medicine. Using small instruments, x-ray guidance, and tiny incisions, Mok and his team performed two minimally invasive procedures: a laminectomy, which made room for the nerves that were being compressed; and spinal fusion, which stabilized her spine.

“When I discuss surgical strategies I always look at them through the minimally invasive lens whenever possible," said Mok. In most cases, he finds that a minimally invasive approach achieves the best possible outcome for the patient, reducing risks, complications, and recovery times. "We’re even able to apply it in revision situations -- when patients come to us after a failed previous surgery and they’ve exhausted their other options,” Mok said.

At UChicago Medicine, the use of leading-edge technology often makes surgery even more effective. “We’ve just acquired a robot that assists with placing the implants when we perform spinal fusion,” Mok explained. “It increases the safety and accuracy of the operation, while keeping it minimally invasive. We’re the only center in Chicago that has that.”

'What matters most'

Crenshaw feels great after spine surgeryCrenshaw feels great after spine surgery 

For Crenshaw, the surgery has been life-transforming. After a week in rehab, she started walking with a walker. After two weeks, she switched to a cane. Now, she walks without the cane, and her mobility allows her to once again enjoy visiting with friends and family and driving on her own. In February 2016, she traveled to Reno and Lake Tahoe -- her first vacation in three-and-a-half years.

“I do just about everything I want to do now. I don’t have any pain in my legs and you can barely see the surgical marks," she said. "Two years ago, I thought that I would never walk again. I’m so grateful to Dr. Mok and I thank God for me coming to know him and helping my situation get better.”

Success stories like Crenshaw’s are gratifying for Mok, too. “What matters most with this surgery is how the patient feels. They have to feel better for the surgery to be considered successful," Mok explained. "When we take someone in pain, who is limited in their life, and are able to change that situation and help them enjoy life again, that’s very satisfying.”

Spine Care

The University of Chicago Medicine spine team offers a wide range of non-surgical, minimally invasive and traditional proven surgical techniques for the treatment of back and neck problems.

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