Years of back pain for Herb Williams culminated in December of 2011 when he and his supervisor lifted a nearly 300-pound chunk of concrete into a large waste receptacle at work.
"I heard a popping noise and that's what herniated the disk," the 42-year-old Roselawn man says.
Workers' compensation sent him to physical therapy, which didn't help. An MRI revealed the herniated disk, and the physical therapist referred Williams to Dr. Dwight Tyndall.
Tyndall, of Spine Care Specialists in Munster, prescribed more physical therapy. "He wanted to do everything but surgery," Williams says.
Again, he saw little improvement.
"I was hunched over, couldn't stand up straight," he says. "It wasn't working out, so we decided on the surgery."
What he didn't realize is he was going under the knife for a new approach to a minimally invasive fusion, using a product that Tyndall's partner Dr. Nitin Khanna helped design.
He had the surgery June 19 and walked four or five laps around the nursing station at Community Hospital in Munster just two days after the operation.
"The only thing now is stiffness in the back when I bend over," he says. "I feel like a new guy."
He does not take pain medication. And after some physical therapy, he returned in October to his job as an apartment complex maintenance technician.
A decade ago, such a speedy recovery would be unheard of. Surgeries yielded uneven results and long recovery times, Khanna says.
As surgeons increasingly specialized their practices, spine doctors started improving on methods and innovating more successful procedures.
Khanna was part of a three-member design team for NuVasive's MAS PLIF procedure, a lumbar fusion that involves inserting small screws and inter-body cages to help reduce back pain. It was officially released in July, but Khanna and Tyndall have been performing the procedure for two years.
Khanna, because of his role on the design team, was tapped to teach other surgeons the procedure.
The operation takes about an hour and a half and has less blood loss than the traditional surgery. Surgeons make a 1 and a half inch incision and use high-powered microscopes to see the affected area.
Most patients go home in a day and are off pain medicine in two weeks. The biggest concern is getting patients to slow down. They often feel well enough to move around before they are finished healing.
Khanna, who has a background in biomedical engineering that complements his work in orthopedics, says this is not the end of the line in the evolution of spinal fusions.
"Everyone believes in continually making it better," he says.
Tyndall says the procedure has made a big difference in terms of lumbar fusions but there is always room for improvement.
"It's an evolution," he says.