As Betsy Banks of Plainfield lay on the hospital table, IV in her arm, she found herself more fascinated with than worried about the procedure she was undergoing.
A former nurse, Banks had been given a test before the procedure that gave her a taste of the freedom from pain she would experience after years of hurt so bad that she had to change careers and radically alter her lifestyle.
The procedure was a cooled radiofrequency denervation of five of Banks’ nerves at the sacroiliac joint in her pelvis. Those pain nerves were heated to the degree that they essentially were severed, thus ending the transmission of pain.
“The pain I had was really very intense,” Banks said. “It was in my lower back, down deep and persistent. It was really, really difficult.”
Banks, 51, suffered multiple injuries in a car accident when she was 19, including pelvic fractures with sacroiliac joint dysfunction. The joint connects the tailbone to the hip bone.
Problems with that joint are not uncommon in middle-aged and older adults, as cartilage that cushions the bones wears thin over the years. It’s estimated that 15 to 20 percent of chronic lower back pain is caused by problems in the sacroiliac joint.
The problem is that the area is difficult for physicians to access. It can also mimic pain caused by other problems, such as sacroiliitis.
“It’s a really common place to get pain and a hard place to treat,” said interventional pain specialist Dr. James Wilson of Naperville. “That joint is not accessible for arthroscopy. ... and it doesn’t respond well to treatment. We call it the Bermuda triangle of pain there.”
Banks said her biggest problem besides not getting the right diagnosis was getting someone to take her pain seriously.
“I couldn’t get anyone to help me with it,” she said. “I was in nursing school at the time, and there was a good pain clinic there, but the attitude was your bones would heal. It just wasn’t taken seriously.”
The pain was so bad that after all her education and excitement about becoming a nurse, Banks quickly discovered she could not handle the physical rigor of the job. She changed to a more sedentary profession.
As she gradually stopped most physical activity, she gained weight, which exacerbated her joint pain. Finally, after more than two decades of her life spent in pain, Banks had had it.
“I had just reached the end of my rope,” she said. “I had a meltdown with my primary physician, and he referred me to Dr. Wilson.”
Coincidentally, Wilson had just completed training on the new SInergy Cooled Radiofrequency System. When Banks came into his office, he saw that she would be a good candidate for it.
Wilson said he considers using the system when a patient doesn’t respond to such conservative treatments as anti-inflammatories or rest. The procedure cuts the pain nerves, which allows the patient to begin living life fully again. It also enables them to get up off the couch, he said, and get physically active.
Banks could hardly wait for the procedure. It took less than an hour, she said, then she was back at home — a little sore, but with none of the pain from her accident.
“It was a piece of cake,” she said. “It was the easiest thing I’ve ever had done. I felt so much better immediately.”
Banks said the difference was night and day. The nerves do tend to grow back together after the procedure, and they did in Banks, requiring her to receive three more treatments, but it’s something she said she would do again. It changed her life.
“Pain prevented me from even trying new things,” she said. “And now I can do a lot. I made dinner for 130 people at my church.”
Banks also lost 100 pounds just from being physically active again. She walks her dog every day now and loves to entertain at home.
She said she wants others to know to keep pushing to find help if they are having a chronic medical problem.
“I encourage people to be very persistent about finding someone who takes their pain seriously,” she said. “Push until you get a recommendation for a good pain specialist. Don’t give up until someone listens to you.”