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Opting for exercise over surgery in Grand Junction

Series: Grand Junction's healthcare | Part IV

February 25, 2010|By Ann Imse, Colorado Public News
  • Patient Phil Smith, left, found relief from back pain without surgery after learning exercises from physical therapist Dan Babbel, right, at Primary Care Partners. Doctors in Grand Junction have agreed that unless a patient shows certain red flags indicating serious injury, treatment for back pain starts with physical therapy.
Patient Phil Smith, left, found relief from back pain without surgery after… (Robert D. Tonsing / Colorado…)

Phil Smith had to return home to Grand Junction to find a health care system that could ease his back pain with a simple 30-second exercise -- after physicians elsewhere proposed killing a nerve or surgical fusing of bones in his spine.

His experience is a example of how the Grand Junction healthcare system provides some of America's best quality healthcare, at the lowest cost, according to Medicare and the Dartmouth Atlas of Healthcare.

Smith's experience was a result of work by a task force of Grand Junction health professionals. The group spent a year developing a detailed protocol for treating back pain. Doctors agreed that unless a patient shows certain red flags indicating serious injury, treatment for back pain starts with physical therapy, explained Dan Babbel of the physical therapy department at Primary Care Partners in Grand Junction.

Therapists teach patients to adjust their activities, changing the mechanics of how they move, and how their joints move, Babbel said. "We teach them the right way to lift, to push, to pull."

"Ninety percent of the time, you get better," he said.

Smith and his wife had taken to the road in their RV when he began to feel crippling pain in his back, from what turned out to be arthritis in the facet bones -- and slouching at the wheel. Doctors suggested surgery to fuse his bones so they could no longer rub, or "chemical ablation," an injection of a destructive chemical.

Smith wasn't happy.

Back home in Grand Junction, Babbel instead put him on a MedX exercise machine that provides resistance during sit-ups, and measures the strength of individual segments of back muscle that should move easily, independently and together.

Then Babbel and Smith developed a series of individualized exercises. For Smith, the one that works miracles involves lying on the floor, pushing his back into the floor at his belt, and simultaneously moving his legs in circles or squares.

"In 30 seconds, no 10 seconds, I can relieve that pain," Smith said.

The exercise, Babbel explains,"repositions and decompresses the nerve."

"In another community, they probably would have gone straight to an MRI," Babbel said. "Or more," added Smith, noting the drastic measures that physicians in other communities had suggested to him to relieve the pain.

Despite the Grand Junction emphasis on seeking out non-surgical solutions to lower back pain, Smith also has been able to obtain surgery when he needs it. He's now building up muscles in preparation for a hip replacement.

Is it the healthcare system that makes Grand Junction so healthy? See the difference in health between low-cost Grand Junction and high-cost McAllen, Tex.

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