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Wednesday, October 10, 2012 - VCU Spine Center provides life-changing solution to patient
By the time Sheila Hammer met with Dr. Maged Hamza, director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Spine Center, in June 2011, her optimism had disappeared and she described herself as “not a very nice person,” she said.

After all, Dr. Hamza was the 12th doctor Hammer had seen to try and alleviate the severe back pain — with no known cause — she had suffered with for three years.

“I said, ‘I know what you’re going to tell me and I’m sure you can’t fix it,’” she said of her visit.

Hammer, an event planner for a major corporation in Richmond, Va., had endured every test, scan and injection available. Nothing worked to ease the searing pain that occurred with every breath she took. She neared desperation.

After undergoing yet another round of unsuccessful injections, her 11th doctor recommended Dr. Hamza. Feeling she had nothing to lose, Hammer made one more appointment.

Dr. Hamza told Hammer that he could implant a spinal cord neurostimulator that would send signals to her brain to stop the pain. The implant, essentially a pacemaker for the spine, would literally retrain her nerves. The treatment, first used in the 1960s, fell out of vogue because of unwieldy equipment but recently experienced a resurgence.

“In the last 12 to 15 years, we made a lot of strides in improving the technology,” Dr. Hamza said. “So it is a very cutting-edge modality for patients.”

The neurostimulator consists of a wire lead that is inserted in the epidural space surrounding the patient’s spinal cord. Electrodes at the end of the lead stimulate the nerves and block the pain. A small battery is also implanted and connected to the lead. Electrical pulses are programmed into an external control unit which the patient uses to turn the system on and off.

At first, Hammer expressed reluctance at undergoing the procedure.

“I was very hesitant,” she said. “I didn’t want anything foreign in my back.”

After several months of back and forth, Hammer opted for the procedure. She, like all of Dr. Hamza’s patients, began with a three-week trial period. The lead was inserted into the epidural space and the battery stayed outside her body. Hammer was given the go-ahead to resume her daily activities.

Two weeks later with her pain lessened, she felt ready to move on to the implant. Hammer’s surgery in December 2011 took place early in the morning and she was home by lunch. Within 10 days, she felt cautious relief.

“I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” she said. “Every day I waited for the pain to come back. I still do that. I wake up in the morning and say, ‘It doesn’t hurt today.’”

By March 2012, Hammer was pain-free. Frequent air travel, necessary for her job, no longer torments her. In fact, she recently took a 16-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, for a trip previously canceled because of her excruciating pain.

Today, Hammer rarely turns on her external control unit and she describes herself as a completely different person than the one who met Dr. Hamza just a year ago. At a recent follow-up visit, she said she bounded into his office feeling wonderful — and thankful.

“Dr. Hamza is great,” she said. “He knows everything and he spends time with you. You appreciate that after you’ve been through 11 other doctors.”

Call (804) 827-7463 to make an appointment or for more information about the VCU Spine Center.
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