For more than 35 years, recently retired dentist Henry Windle, DMD, had been training for and participating in triathlons. But near the end of 2022, he went from a triathlete to being barely able to walk without falling.
“I was really having a difficult time,” Dr. Windle remembers. “I was unstable — a constant fall risk. It affected my whole life.”
A large disc herniation, or rupture, had caused spinal stenosis in his thoracic spine, compressing his spinal cord.
Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal through which your spinal cord and nerves run. It develops more commonly in the lumbar or lower back and the cervical or neck regions of the spine. It also may affect the thoracic spine, or mid-back, as in Dr. Windle’s case.
“The stenosis in his lower thoracic spine was compressing his spinal cord, causing progressive paralysis in his left lower extremity,” says Mark A, Fye, MD, a fellowship-trained orthopaedic spine surgeon at Orthopaedic Specialists–UPMC. “He went from running 5K races in triathlons to using a wheeled walker, then was eventually unable to walk at all.”
In spinal stenosis, the nerves in the lumbar spine and the spinal cord in the cervical or thoracic spine may become compressed by arthritis-related bone spurs or disc herniations. Compression of the spinal cord or nerves affects nerve function, causing symptoms that worsen over time. They include:
- Pain or spasms in the arms or legs.
- Numbness or weakness in the legs or arms.
- Loss of balance or instability.
Dr. Windle had suffered from minor back pain for a few years before his issues came to a head in December 2022. At that point, he was still working in his Beaver, Pa., dental office, but was practically debilitated from the weakness in his legs.
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Fear of Falling
“I was working but was very cramped and unsteady,” Dr. Windle says. “I couldn’t walk from the chair to the wall without fear of falling. I would use a stool to roll from one patient room to another.
“The instability was terrible – I was just waiting to fall. When I tried to walk, it looked like I was drunk.”
According to Dr. Fye, spinal stenosis of the cervical and thoracic spine often causes patients to walk irregularly or feel drunk regarding their gait.
After a consultation with a neurologist friend and some MRIs, Dr. Windle discovered he had spinal stenosis. It was affecting the thoracic bones T11 and T12.
His son-in-law, a biomedical sales rep, referred him to Dr. Fye, who he knew from calling on the practice.
After evaluating Dr. Windle and reviewing his MRI, Dr. Fye recommended that Dr. Windle undergo a laminectomy.
“The cause of the symptoms affecting his legs was a large disc herniation at T11-T12, and the spinal stenosis was causing damage to his spinal cord,” says Dr. Fye. “A laminectomy T11-12 with a discectomy would stop the damage and allow for recovery of his neurologic deficit, helping his weakness to recover.”
A laminectomy with discectomy is a minimally invasive surgery. It removes a small portion of the vertebra/backbone to remove bone spurs or disc herniations that put pressure on the spinal cord or nerves.
Doctors also use this procedure to access the spinal cord, bones, and discs. They may remove a disc to help make the canal larger and take pressure off the affected nerve.
The surgeon makes a few small incisions and removes the lamina using a high-speed drill and other spinal tools. Once removed, the surgeon can inspect the spinal cord and discs, removing any disc herniation without manipulating the spinal cord to remove pressure.
According to Dr. Fye, many surgeries addressing spinal stenosis can be done through a minimally invasive one-inch incision, allowing patients to return home the same day. Fewer cases of spinal stenosis require open surgery, which involves a larger incision in the skin over the problem area of the back and results in a one- to three-day stay in the hospital. Depending on the cause of the patient’s symptoms, they may need to fuse two vertebrae through a minimally invasive spinal fusion.
Walking the Next Day
Dr. Windle had his minimally invasive laminectomy and discectomy on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 2022. On Christmas Day, he was walking the hospital halls with Dr. Fye, climbing a flight of stairs without assistance.
“His paralysis was resolved completely,” says Dr. Fye. “He was so elated after he realized his legs were normal again, he hugged me and cried.”
Very quickly, all his symptoms improved. “I’d say I am 95% better after the surgery,” Dr. Windle adds.
After a few months of physical therapy and home training, Dr. Windle is back to participating in triathlons. Not only did he regain full function, but his recovery sparked a shared interest in triathlons with Dr. Fye.
“During our preoperative and postoperative visits, I had shared my own interest in doing a triathlon. But with my busy schedule, it was hard to fit in the necessary training,” says Dr. Fye. “Dr. Windle’s motivation and positive attitude inspired me to train with him for my first triathlon.”
Back to Competing
Both men participated in the North Park Triathlon in August 2023. It was Dr. Windle’s fourth triathlon that summer. Both finished in the top half of their age groups.
Dr. Windle is happy to be able to do all the things he did before his injury debilitated him. He’s beyond grateful for Dr. Fye’s expertise.
“Dr. Fye changed my life, and over that experience we became friends,” he says. “We got to share something special together because of his ability to help me.”
Despite being pain-free at 72-years-old, Dr. Windle has no plans to go back to work. He intends to continue enjoying his retirement and living an active lifestyle.
About UPMC Orthopaedic Care
When you are dealing with bone, muscle, or joint pain, it can affect your daily life. UPMC Orthopaedic Care can help. As a national leader in advanced orthopaedic care, we diagnose and treat a full range of musculoskeletal disorders, from the acute and chronic to the common and complex. We provide access to UPMC’s vast network of support services for both surgical and nonsurgical treatments and a full continuum of care. Our multidisciplinary team of experts will work with you to develop the treatment plan that works best for you. Our care team uses the most innovative tools and techniques to provide better outcomes. We also are leaders in research and clinical trials, striving to find better ways to provide our patients care. With locations throughout our communities, you can find a provider near you.