Turning Your Back on Back Pain

"Find a doctor who truly listens to you and looks out for you, like we have," says George Bagdon, left. "He's amazing. A healer," adds Neal Duenas.
Up to 85 percent of Americans will experience some form of neck or back pain in their lifetimes and, for many, the problem will turn chronic and even debilitating, gradually shrinking their world. 

Neal Duenas and George Bagdon are determined not to be among these statistics ever again. They believe a healthy life is worth working for — which is why every week they swim, practice yoga, walk, bike and work out with a trainer. And why they are both immensely satisfied patients of P. Jeffrey Smith, DO, Board Certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, who is a pain management expert and spine pain specialist at Eisenhower Desert Orthopedic Center (EDOC).

In years past, Duenas often had such intense lower back pain, he didn’t feel like going out — or even moving. Then, he developed neck pain as well, also from severe arthritis. “I was miserable and depressed.”

A retired director of radiology services at major medical centers such as Stanford University, Duenas, 79, knows “who’s an excellent practitioner and who isn’t. I’ve worked with hundreds of physicians.” 

Since he began seeing Dr. Smith nearly a decade ago, his back pain has diminished to the point of disappearing. “He’s amazing,” Duenas says of Dr. Smith. “A healer.”

Communication Counts
Duenas’ husband, George Bagdon, 76, agrees. A more recent patient of Dr. Smith’s, he’s just as fervent a fan. “He spends all the time necessary to explain a procedure or treatment plan,” says Bagdon. 

In their quest to beat back pain, Duenas and Bagdon — who will celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary and their 44th year as a couple in 2022 — tried other modalities. Among their explorations: acupuncture, physical therapy, chiropractic, massage, even orthotics (medical devices worn inside the shoes). 

Some things helped; others didn’t. Nothing fully clicked until they came to Eisenhower Health. “I’m very impressed with the care we’ve received,” notes Duenas.

"Choosing the right technique for each individual starts by identifying their primary pain generator."- P Jeffrey Smith, DO
 According to Dr. Smith, the key to excellent care is EDOC’s focus on comprehensive spine care, with orthopedists, physiatrists, spinal surgeons, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and more working as one team. “We all share a similar approach, starting from the knowledge that surgery is not necessary for most people with back issues,” says Dr. Smith, “but some kind of intervention will help.”

Both Duenas and Bagdon have consulted with spinal surgeons at EDOC. Neither needs that option now, but they’re comforted knowing there’s a deep well of capabilities in place should they need it. “We have a lot of options,” says Duenas. 

Until the last few years, opioids were a go-to medication for chronic pain, but pain specialists are now relying on a wide range of alternatives. 

First Asking ‘What Hurts You?’
Among the tools in Dr. Smith’s bag are steroid injections; radiofrequency ablation, which uses heat to stop nerve tissue from sending pain signals; meditation, breathwork and other mindfulness practices; hypnotherapy; exercises like yoga and Tai Chi; and biologics — medication derived from the human body or other living biological organisms.

“Choosing the right technique for each individual starts by identifying their primary pain generator,” says Dr. Smith. He also looks at how long someone’s been in pain and how severe it is. “That’s the definition of individualized precision medicine, asking, ‘What hurts you?’” 

For Bagdon, epidural steroid injections calmed the spasms in his lower back and tackled the bursitis in his shoulder. Duenas had steroid injections early on, but when his back pain began to creep up again, he was ready for a new way to control his pain. 

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Duenas had a role in helping to test CT and magnetic resonance imaging technology, and believes in the power of medical innovation. He opted to try an alternative biologic technique — platelet-rich plasma (PRP).

The Body’s Own Healing
PRP is in a new family of orthobiologics being explored by orthopedists to speed healing. “PRP uses a patient’s blood to attract their own growth factors that prompt a healing response and improve pain and function,” says Dr. Smith. 

The concentrated PRP solution is injected into the injury site, such as the lower back. Duenas noticed the positive impact within a few days of his first injection as his pain subsided. After a second PRP injection, he is pain free. 

The couple has happily resumed their active life, from their passion for gardening — their “desert oasis” yard has been featured in Sunset Magazine — to global travel. They’re planning a cruise in the new year to Antarctica. 

“Find a doctor who truly listens to you and looks out for you, like we have,” advises Bagdon. “It’s your health, your body.”

For more information or to find a physician at Eisenhower Desert Orthopedic Center, call 760.773.4545. Or visit EisenhowerHealth.org/EDOC.