One of the most dominant big men in college and professional basketball for nearly two decades, Bill Walton finally came up against an opponent in 2007 that very nearly took him out of the game of life. Walton says his spine “failed and collapsed.”
During the next two years, the now 60-year-old counterculture hoops hero from the ’70s – who estimates he’s attended 835 Grateful Dead shows – says he was in so much pain he actually would have been grateful to be dead.
“Spine issues are one of the leading factors in our suicide problem because it’s just so hard, and this has been the hardest thing that I have ever done in my life,” Walton said. “I was terrified.”
In February 2009, after two years of trying everything from acupuncture to spinal injections with no success, Walton had a relatively new surgical procedure called XLIF (eXtreme Lateral Interbody Fusion) that restored full mobility and returned him to a pain-free life with no medication. ESPN brought the two-time college and NBA champion back last season as an analyst for Pac-12 college games.
With an oversized personality and a penchant for upbeat, colorful and sometimes controversial commentary, Walton is also an unpaid spokesman for The Better Way Back, a nonprofit patient support and education program funded by medical device company NuVasive.
“With success, with privilege comes responsibility, duty and opportunity,” Walton said. About 70 percent of the population experiences some kind of back pain at some point in their life, he says. “Because I’ve gotten all better, I have a responsibility (to educate and advocate).”
The Mayo Clinic estimates that one in 10 Americans suffers from the effects of chronic back pain, which translates to more than 500,000 Coloradans. Experts say one factor is chronic pain and a feeling of hopelessness.
“I spend hours every day on the phone, face-to-face and on the Internet with people convincing them that there is a better way back into the game of life because suicide is a huge problem with spine patients,” Walton said.
Vail-Summit Orthopaedics spine surgeon Dr. Greg Poulter, who performs the XLIF procedure (but did not work on Walton), is among an estimated 10 to 15 percent of spine surgeons nationwide performing XLIF. Poulter says spine surgery has had a bad reputation, in large part because of the technology and techniques used in the past.
The work on the spine itself remains largely the same, it’s all about how the spine is accessed with XLIF, Poulter adds.
Walton’s XLIF surgery involved cleaning up debris in and around his spine. His spine was then straightened to take the pressure off nerves that were being compressed, causing him leg and back pain. It was then stabilized with screws, rods, a cage and spacers.
To do all that, surgeons went in through his side. That technique replaces the old way of performing the surgery, which required massive, foot-long incisions through muscle on the back, or through the abdomen, which means moving intestines, the aorta and other internal organs.
“The problem with spine surgery is oftentimes you would do more damage than good,” Poulter said. “Sure, the spine would be fixed, but people would be so weak from having the large abdominal incision or a big incision down their back that they wouldn’t get that much better.”
Because of mixed results in the past, Poulter said many people suffering from debilitating back pain wouldn’t even consider surgery.
“I’m not necessarily trying to sign people up but just let them know that if they get to a point where maybe others have told them they can’t be helped, there’s a chance they could be helped,” he said. “If you can take someone who was in Bill Walton’s situation and turn it around for them where they can be active again, that’s a big reason why we all go into medicine is to try to help people out.”
Poulter compares XLIF to the revolution in knee surgery 20 years ago when doctors went from opening up the knee with a big incision, to the less-invasive arthroscopic techniques used today. XLIF uses a retractor – a small tube that allows surgeons to go in through the side and work on the spine, fusing discs and un-pinching nerves.
The Better Way Back organization indicates that some patients have encountered problems getting insurers to pay for the surgery. But Poulter says that, at least in his practice, that has not been a problem.
“If someone is in enough pain and has the kinds of problems that could be fixed with the surgery, if we think an XLIF is a good fit for them, I haven’t had any problems getting that approved for insurance,” the doctor said.
Colorado Public News, a nonprofit news organization, reports on issues of statewide interest. It partners with Colorado Public Television 12, Denver’s independent PBS station.