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Julie's story – total disc replacement

Julie Littler

Julie had been fit and healthy, with an active life and lively personality, until, in her late twenties, she developed severe low back pain after lifting heavy boxes. The extreme pain was diagnosed as sciatica, and she was given painkillers and advised to take it easy.

However, Julie's condition went downhill rapidy. She went through every painkiller and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) before ending up on morphine. She had to give up work and relied on crutches or a wheelchair to get about.

Julie and her husband Keith had always wanted a family and, despite her condition, Julie gave birth to daughter Charlotte. Unfortunately, this made Julie's pain even worse as she then had to keep bending over to pick Charlotte up.

‘It wasn’t a life, it was an existence’

Julie had always been involved in running performing arts groups, but she found that the excruciating pain left her unable to do much beyond sitting around wondering where her life had gone. Every six months she had to go to her local pain clinic for steroid injections and epidurals to numb the pain temporarily.

“It wasn’t a life, it was an existence,” she says. “I don’t know what age people give up on life and just sit around, but I didn’t want to be like that, especially in my early thirties. I’d always been so busy but it was all taken away from me.” 

When Julie was at her lowest ebb, she read an article about a new form of back surgery being performed by an orthopaedic surgeon in Leeds, Jake Timothy. Although her local primary care trust (PCT) wouldn’t pay for an NHS referral, Julie decided to see him privately. It was a turning point.

'Of course there’s something that we can do.’ 

‘After years of people saying that there was nothing they could do, that back pain was back pain, Mr Timothy said to me: ‘Of course there’s something that we can do’. My husband and I were buzzing when we came away. No one had ever told us what the problem was – I was just told it was lower back pain and that I should take some pills,’ says Julie.

Vertebral discs completely worn away

Although an MRI scan had shown some disc degeneration, it didn't match the amount of pain Julie was feeling. A procedure called a discogram, in which a radiologist inserts a tiny tube into each disc and pumps it full of dye, was performed. Although deeply painful, it revealed that one of the discs in Julie's spine was completely worn away.

Although this process revealed that Julie would be suitable for total disc replacement, her PCT refused to pay for the surgery.

After six months, during which time Julie’s back went into complete spasm and she spent almost four weeks in hospital on a near-constant epidural drip, and with the PCT still holding out, Julie and Keith decided that they had no option but to privately fund her disc replacement operation. Within 10 days of the operation Julie was pottering about the house.

Julie says: ‘Before, the pain I was getting was absolutely searing, like toothache all the time. Now I just get a dull ache from time to time. I can’t speak highly enough of Mr Timothy and his team; they were marvellous.’

'I want to enjoy life again'

Seven weeks after the operation Julie was well enough to go to Silverstone to watch the British Grand Prix. She regained full movement quickly and took up Pilates to help strengthen her muscles and improve her posture. She’s starting to think about returning to work, and getting back into leading drama groups and singing classes. Most of all she’s looking forward to doing things with Charlotte.

‘She’s got her mum back and I’ve got my life back.’

‘For my birthday I’m going to get a bike, as I’ve never been able to take Charlotte on a bike ride or do normal mum things. Now I can. I missed nine years and now I want to enjoy life again.’

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