back pain

By the time Eileen Scott turned 66, she was at her wit’s end. Born with scoliosis, she’d spent a lifetime dealing with chronic back pain. But her pain had become so severe she could barely walk 250 steps a day. As she neared retirement, she wondered about her future and dreams of traveling.

“I didn’t picture spending my retirement sitting on my couch, barely able to stand long enough to cook my meals,” Eileen says. “I was frustrated, worried — and in pain.”

A friend then recommended Christopher Standaert, MD, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) at the UPMC Program for Spine Health, which offers a nonoperative approach to back pain.

“They changed my life,” Eileen says.

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A Lifetime of Pain

“I don’t remember a day when I didn’t have pain,” says Eileen, a Hampton resident and Realtor.

Diagnosed with scoliosis as a child, she later developed spinal stenosis and osteoarthritis. Over the years, she tried multiple rounds of physical therapy, painkillers, injections, and radiofrequency ablation (which uses heat to disrupt pain signals in the spinal nerves). At age 50, she had spinal fusion surgery, which provided some relief for about a decade.

But the pain grew progressively worse and debilitating. Eileen developed spinal fractures and balance problems. Bad falls left her with a herniated disc in her neck and a severe concussion. By 2019, the pain was excruciating.

Adding to her frustration were therapists and doctors who advised her to exercise.

“I can manage a high level of pain. But telling me to jog or lift weights when I couldn’t even walk across the room was very frustrating,” Eileen says.

A Holistic Approach

When Eileen met with Dr. Standaert in late 2019, she felt hopeful for the first time in years. He helped her to understand her back issues and her options. Working with a team of physical therapists specially trained in the complexities of spine care, Dr. Standaert developed la specific plan aimed at improving balance and standing so she could function better.

“His approach was practical and sensible. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but it was doable,” she says. “I was all in.”

“We’re not a fix-it place,” explains Dr. Standaert. “We help patients get better by empowering them. We help them understand what the problem is, how they can work around it, and what may or may not be effective for them.”

Dr. Standaert’s program involves a holistic approach. Instead of focusing on managing pain, it takes the entire patient into account. In addition to specialty medical care and physical therapy, Eileen received psychological and nutritional counseling, plus personal coaching aimed at supporting her goals.

“We addressed the things that were getting in the way for her to walk and function well. We got Eileen stronger and we worked on her diet and nutrition,” says Dr. Standaert. “She went for it and did what she needed to do.”

After her initial meeting with Dr. Standaert at his Oakland office, Eileen worked with physical therapists at the program’s Allison Park location just minutes from her home. They focused on building her strength and stamina as well as her balance. She later traveled to the program’s Cranberry location at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex for aquatic therapy.

“Everyone played a role. They were all very positive and very helpful,” says Eileen.

Great Results, Big Plans

Eileen was committed. She exercised religiously at home and walked in her neighborhood — first to the mailbox, then next door, then to the corner.

“Little by little, I improved. I started getting my energy and stamina back,” says Eileen. “It was a slow process, but eventually I was able to manage the pain and walk more.”

Now, at age 68, Eileen walks a mile a day around her neighborhood. She also joined a gym where she continues her water exercises. Her goal now is to walk up to three miles at a time so she can visit historic and national parks around the United States. She’s also planning a trip to Spain and Portugal with a group of friends.

“When I started the spine program, I could only do 250 steps in an entire day. Now I do 2,500 steps at one time,” Eileen says. “I’m so grateful to Dr. Standaert and his team.”

For more information about the UPMC Program for Spine Health or to make an appointment, call 412-219-0386.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

At UPMC, we strive to improve your function after injury or illness. We help people recover from functional, pain-related, and neurological conditions, with both inpatient and outpatient care available. We are dedicated to providing you with exceptional clinical care and focused on developing new technologies and treatments to help you achieve mobility and maintain independence. Find a provider near you.