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Easing Back Pain

Health experts discuss methods of treating woes related to spine

December 2, 2012
The Leader Herald


The Leader-Herald

GLOVERSVILLE - A roomful of local residents received an earful Tuesday night about an ailment as common, as it is troublesome - back pain.

Article Photos

Dr. Jian Shen, center, and William Oates, director of rehab services at Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville, left, answer questions during a presentation about treatment for back pain on Tuesday night at the Holiday Inn in Johnstown.

(Photo by John Borgolini/The Leader-Herald)

Presenter Dr. Jian Shen, a local surgeon, said as many as 85 percent of the people in the world deal with back problems at times in their lives, and he explained back problems are clearly more common the more people age due to degeneration.

"As we age, the degeneration is like a tire getting flat," Shen said, explaining the intervertebral discs - structures between the bones of the spine - gradually lose their ability to handle mechanical stress.

And this disease isn't exclusive to older individuals.

Speaking at the Holiday Inn in Johnstown, at an event sponsored by Nathan Littauer Hospital, Shen said the youngest patient he has seen with the disease was 13 years old, though that was a very rare case. Often, a person's propensity to suffer from back trouble is determined by genetics, he said.

William Oates, Littauer's director of rehab services, spoke to the crowd about patients recovering from back surgery and finding out where the pain is in the back.

Aside from tests such as the MRI - magnetic resonance imaging - doctors are able to find the cause and specific location of the pain with strength testing, sensation assessments, reflex testing and a "straight-leg" test.

The straight-leg test involves the patient lying on his or her back while the doctor lifts the patient's leg up while straight. Normally, the patient will feel pain down the back of his or her leg, but if not, it is more likely that the person has a herniated disc.

"The patient will illicit a response," Oates said.

To prevent further back problems, patients are given some different pointers, including the following:

With some patients, if there is a problem and it's identified and medically treated, Oates said, the patient is then given a list of home exercises to do.

"We don't want you to go home with nothing and, three or four weeks later, to have you in our doors," Oates said. "Stay home. Stay healthy."

Shen has been practicing an innovative spinal surgery for the last year at Nathan Littauer hospital, and on Tuesday night he discussed his practice with the audience at the Holiday Inn.

Since August 2011, Shen has been operating on patients with an endoscopic, minimally invasive spinal surgery - a procedure that only requires a small incision to work on a specific part of the back.

"It's normally a small incision with no soft tissue tears and no blood loss. There isn't a need for a blood transfusion," he said. "None of the patients have to stay overnight. They have a quicker recovery. This week, I had 16 spine surgeries and nobody is in the hospital. They're all home."

Shen said he is the only surgeon in the Capital Region practicing this form of spinal surgery, and he credits that to the difficulty of the surgery itself.

"It has a stiff learning curve," he said. "It's very challenging - much more than other surgeries - because you only see a very limited part of the spine. But you have to know the whole structure. It requires a lot of learning to get used to this kind of approach."

Cheryl McGrattan, vice president of marketing at Nathan Littauer, had high praise for Shen's work after the presentation Tuesday.

"The surgeries that Dr. Shen is doing are truly amazing," she said. "He is one of the few surgeons in the world that is doing endoscopic spine surgeries. His professors who taught him are ... flying out here to watch him do an endoscopic spine surgery.

"And you can always tell when Dr. Shen is at our hospital, because there are so many people who are coming to observe."

McGrattan said the only hospitals in the country where this sort of surgery is performed are in Texas, San Francisco and Gloversville.

John Borgolini can be reached at



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