Spine Neurosurgery Comes to Rescue When Injury Threatens Spinal Cord


I was looking up and could see the sun through the water and I thought, 'This is it.'

-Matt Ryan, patient, Stanford Hospital & Clinics

For decades, Ryan has coached young athletes, using his knowledge of biomechanics and athletic training to make sure they do well without injury.

Ryan, a lifelong athlete who'd competed two Ironman competitions, is still physically active golfing, swimming and cycling. Now, he's added martial arts to a routine that keeps him active without stress on his spine.

The spine is a joint and when you're treating a joint, you have to be careful. It's not like a liver or an appendix.

-Jon Park, MD, Director, Stanford Hospital Comprehensive Spine Neurosurgery

Ryan, a physical therapist, is back at his job with no signs of the injury that nearly took his life or the surgery that saved it.

  • Nine out of 10 people in the United States will experience low back pain at least once during their lives. It's the most common reason people go to the doctor or miss work.
  • Most back pain resolves itself with nonsurgical treatment and self-care.
  • Many forms of nonsurgical therapies, such as physical therapy, can help, especially in the short term.
  • While a small minority of chronic back pain patients have a physical abnormality, like a large bone spur, scoliosis or significant disc degeneration, many people will have no obvious anatomic cause for the pain.
  • Spinal stenosis, the most common surgical need in the United States for people over 50, can often be treated with physical therapy or by using a cane before surgery is required.
  • The vast majority of back pain patients do not need surgery, said Stefan Mindea, MD, Director of Minimally Invasive Spinal Surgery in Stanford's Comprehensive Spine Neurosurgery program. “Back surgery does not work if you are not the right candidate,” he said.
  • A comprehensive care team can include a spine neurosurgeon, pain anesthesiologist, rehabilitation psychiatrist, and a neuropsychiatrist to manage surgical and nonsurgical disorders of the spine and peripheral nerves.
  •  Injuries like Matt Ryan's require specialized trauma care that may involve spine reconstruction.