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Meet Michael Gazda — Ruptured Discs

The Challenge: Back Pain

For Michael Gazda, working hard is a way of life. He spent 26 years in the oil industry, where grueling manual labor is a daily routine.

Lifting heavy pieces of equipment, slogging through fields of mud, and being on his feet for hours on end is what he remembers most.

Even though the hard work made him happy, it put an immense strain on his back.

“I knew that this job would take a toll on my body,” says Michael. “I just didn’t realize it would be my back.”

The 55-year-old Indiana, Pa. native started noticing his back pain nearly 10 years ago. But, he felt it was the normal wear and tear of his job.

“Everyone I worked with had back pain,” he says. “I just dealt with it at first, but then, it just started getting worse.”

As an avid hunter, outdoorsman, and golfer, he was also in good shape. However, the pain began to slow him down.

He started having trouble walking uphill. And at his job, he couldn’t do the things he used to do.

He also began to gain weight, which he notes was a sign that he needed to get help, and quick.

“I went from around 200 pounds to more than 300 in less than a year,” says Michael. “That was really alarming for me and I knew that I was just going to get worse.”

The Path to UPMC's Department of Neurosurgery

Michael began seeing chiropractors and other specialists for his back pain.

In addition, he was receiving epidural steroid injections — shots that deliver steroid medication directly to spinal nerve roots to reduce pain. While that provided some temporary relief, it was still not enough.

After an MRI revealed several ruptured discs in Michael’s lower back, his doctor referred him to Adam Kanter, MD, director of the UPMC Minimally Invasive Spine Program.

The Solution: Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery

During the first consultation, Dr. Kanter felt that minimally invasive surgery was the best option to relieve Michael from his back pain.

“Dr. Kanter explained the surgery to me very well,” says Michael. “I knew right from the start that UPMC was the place to be. They had all the answers to my questions and Dr. Kanter was very up front with me about what to expect following the surgery.”

To correct the damage in Michael’s lower back, Dr. Kanter performed minimal access lateral lumbar interbody fusion (LLIF).

During the procedure, Dr. Kanter accessed Michael’s spine from the side of his body — instead of from the front or back — and replaced the damaged discs with height-restoring cages to remove the pressure from his nerve roots.

The LLIF approach causes far less damage to tissues and muscles and reduces complications associated with other traditional surgeries for treating lumbar stenosis and herniated discs.

The Results: No More Lower Back Pain

Only a few days following surgery, Michael’s pain started to decrease. Within a few weeks, he was off all pain medication.

Michael couldn’t believe the results.

“I was amazed. I had no lower back pain whatsoever, and I was quickly getting back to my old self. And I only missed 27 days of work, which was really nice,” he says.

A year later, Michael feels like a new person.

He walks four miles on his treadmill every morning before work, and has dropped all his excess weight. He’s even back to spending time outdoors, hunting and fishing.

Michael couldn’t be happier.

“After the surgery, I got my life back,” he says. “I have a band that tracks my steps, and I’ve taken five million since the surgery. That’s truly incredible compared to where I was before. I’d be lucky to take 100 a day.”

Our patient stories profile a number of patients who have had minimally invasive spine or brain surgery at UPMC. Although everyone’s care experience is unique, we hope that sharing these stories will help other prospective patients and their families better understand these procedures and their potential benefits.

Michael's treatment and results may not be representative of all similar cases.​