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Kent’s Story

Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease


Kent, lumbar degenerative disc disease patient

Kent, lumbar degenerative disc disease patient

As an NFL quarterback for more than a decade, Kent enjoyed a career that a lot of kids – and grownups – only get to dream about. But when debilitating back pain caused him to not only cut his football career short, but also quit tossing the ball around with his own children, he decided it was finally time to find an effective way to tackle this formidable opponent.

Involved in the game since childhood, by age 34 Kent had played for the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Phoenix Cardinals. 

While years of training for any sport can eventually take a toll on even the most well-conditioned athlete, the physical rigors required for a successful career in professional football are particularly brutal, and may have contributed to – or at the very least certainly didn't help – the disc degeneration that developed in Kent's lower back. Along with practice, workouts, and the team playbook – acute back pain, muscle spasms, and weakness soon became a regular part of Kent's life.

Living With Pain

"I noticed the first symptoms when I was still playing with the Jaguars," Kent explains. "My left leg felt weak all down the side, so whenever I would drop back during a play, my leg would drag. The lower back pain started soon after that, and then the muscle spasms began. Everything just got progressively worse and worse, but for a long time, I thought I could just fight through it."

Kent's degenerative disc problem was undiagnosed at the time, so under the guidance of his team trainers, he attempted to alleviate his symptoms with heat and cold packs, physical therapy, and anti-inflammatory treatments, including medication and magnetic resonance therapy.

"Eventually, I couldn't even stand for anyone to touch my back. I used to be able to get massages, but I couldn't do that anymore because it would send my back into spasms," Kent says.

In addition to interfering with his livelihood, Kent's symptoms were also getting in the way of his family time.

"I have four kids, and it got to where I couldn't pick them up or do a lot of the other things you normally do as a dad. I also used to enjoy being a volunteer football coach for our local kids' teams, but that became harder to do because I just couldn't handle all the standing and walking around anymore."

Kent's pain, muscle spasms, and other symptoms eventually became so severe – and unpredictable – that he started to suffer emotionally, as well.

"I had a lot of ups and downs," he says. "I would be OK for a couple of days, then go to brush my teeth and be laid up for 3 or 4 days after that. The pain really got to me and at times I was depressed. I was constantly trying to beat it, but it just kept winning."

Kent also admits this condition was a major factor in his decision to retire from professional football. "At that point, I just felt like my body was telling me, 'Hey, ya better shut it down, boy."

Despite these difficulties, Kent had been unwilling to consider spine surgery, even though two of the spine specialists who had treated him recommended spinal fusion. "I tried every type of physical therapy you could do because I didn't want my back to be messed with," he says.

A Thanksgiving trip to Phoenix, however, caused him to change his mind.

"I did a little four-wheeling with the kids and it put me down for the whole rest of the vacation," he says. "At that point, I finally realized the pain had just completely worn me down and it was time to get something done. My doctors had been recommending spinal surgery for two years. That's just how hard-headed I am."

Preparing for Surgery

His reservations against surgery resolved, Kent met with surgeon Richard G. Fessler, MD, PhD, with the University of Chicago's Department of Neurosurgery.

"My neighbor, a patient of Dr. Fessler's, had pointed me in his direction and I got a referral from my doctor," Kent says. "After I met with him, the decision to have spine surgery really seemed like a no-brainer. I was impressed with the technology; it sounded like it was really cutting-edge."

Spinal fusion involves removing the degenerated disc material and fusing – or joining together – the vertebrae on either side of the disc space. This requires a bone graft, or small piece of bone material, to help promote bone growth at the fusion site.

Traditionally, surgeons obtain this graft material either from a donor (allograft) or from the patient's hip (autograft), which requires an additional surgical procedure. Kent's surgeon, however, performed a lumbar interbody spinal fusion using Infuse® Bone Graft with a lumbar cage.

The active ingredient in Infuse Bone Graft is recombinant human Bone Morphogenetic Protein-2 (rhBMP-2), a manufactured version of a natural protein already present in the body that stimulates bone formation.

Because his surgeon used Infuse Bone Graft/LT-Cage® Device, Kent was spared the additional bone harvest procedure for graft material. "I'd heard that this could be really painful, so I'm really glad I didn't have to go through it," Kent says.

Road to Recovery

Regarding his recovery, Kent admits that at first it was very tough. He was in a lot of muscular pain, which he learned was a common side effect in extraordinarily fit patients.

"Dr. Fessler told me this was the thing that muscular guys like me often struggle with the most after spine surgery. It's the rare downside to being in such good shape."

After surgery, Kent was in the hospital for a week. By the end of his stay, he was up and walking around.

"Even then I could already tell that my back was much more secure," he says.

Having traded in his football jersey for a suit and tie, now running his own business as a futures bond trader, Kent was able to return to work soon after he came home.

"All I needed was to be comfortable in my chair," he says. "At that point I could drive and do almost everything else I needed to get through my day. I just had to be careful; I couldn't bend over or lift anything for 6 weeks, until the doctor could make sure that my fusion was healing OK."

Now 6 months post-surgery, Kent says he's almost completely pain-free, with only some slight muscle weakness remaining in his leg.

"The left side's still just a little weak, but it's already come a long way and will continue to get better," Kent says. "But what's important to me is that now I can be what I consider a 'real dad' again. I can get out with the kids and play a little ball, shoot hoops and work in the yard."

"I'm also playing some tennis and golf, but not pushing myself, like going out to run 4 to 5 miles the way I used to. That, to me, would be the real test, but I'm just not there yet."

Despite his initial concerns and temporary post-surgical muscle pain, Kent says he is very glad he had the spine surgery and would recommend it to anyone else whose doctor deemed it appropriate for their condition.

"Even when I was just leaving the hospital, I was thinking, 'I'm so glad I finally had this done,'" he says. "Overall, my recovery's been pretty amazing. And Dr. Fessler's staff was excellent. The care they gave me was great."

With his recovery progressing so well, Kent admits that he occasionally daydreams about returning to the professional playing field, but will most likely concentrate on tackling some less-ambitious – but equally important – goals for now.

"It's so tempting – my arm feels really good these days," he says. "But I haven't been able to train like I used to for quite a while, so now I'm just trying to lose weight and get back in shape."

This story reflects one person's experience. Not every person will receive the same results. Talk to your doctor about your treatment options.