One of the United States of America’s most famous presidents struggles with chronic back pain since his Harvard days in 1937. John F. Kennedy’s back condition and the 4 surgeries he went through to treat it – are such a huge point of interest because of how his condition could have affected his career and his death. The rocking chair was a trademark of Kennedy’s presidency, but the reason he used it was to ease his chronic back pain.

Neurosurgeons with the University of Arkansas studied the former president’s medical records and published an article about them in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine and laid out a very different picture of the youngest elected president of the United States. “He wasn’t a young fit healthy guy—he was possibly the 20th century’s sickest President” said Justin T. Dowdy. Dowdy is one of two surgeons who wrote the article. As a child, Kennedy almost died from Scarlet Fever. Later, he struggled with problems with his stomach, prostate, colon and many other ailments. His back problems probably came from a football injury at Harvard. Whatever the injury was, it led him to fail his military physicals when he tried to enlist in 1940. Eventually, his father’s connections as a former ambassador would allow him to enlist in the Navy in 1941 and was declared “fit for duty” in 1942. 

JFK’s Surgeries

After returning from the Pacific in 1944 – Kennedy visited the Mayo Clinic. The team there found Kennedy’s pain was not an obvious presentation of a herniated disc, and did not recommend surgery. In June of that year, Kennedy went ahead with two surgeries anyway. First an L4-5 Laminotomy and then an L5-S1 discectomy. The surgeries did not go well and Kennedy later wrote “In regard to the fascinating subject of my operation … I think the doc should have read just one more book before picking up the saw.” Kennedy went on to serve in the House of Representatives and then the Senate before his next procedure, a lumbosacral fusion — in 1954. Complications after surgery meant more months of recovery. Kennedy had developed an infection. A friend who visited him during the recovery later wrote ““the area where they cut into his back never healed. It was oozing blood and pus all the time. It must have been painful beyond belief…. It was an open wound that seemed to be infected all the time. And now and then a piece of bone would come out of the wound. His pain was excruciating.” The hardware used for the fusion was removed in February of 1955 – only a few months before Kennedy would return to the Senate. Kennedy continued to treat with an internal medicine specialist, and probably had trigger-point injections and introduced him to a rocking chair. In 1957, Kennedy underwent his final back procedure to treat an abscess that had formed near his incision.

Back Brace Controversy

The writers of this article explained Kennedy’s use of a brace during his presidency – has kept many wondering if his back pain led to his death. Kennedy was wearing a tightly bound lumbar brace the day Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated the president. Many believe the brace returned the president to an upright position after he was shot in the neck. That position allowed Oswald a fatal shot to the head. The controversy is still highly debated. 

New Forms of Treatment

Some of the complications listed in that article are the reason DISC of Louisiana’s surgeons have committed their careers to providing safer, less invasive surgical options to people struggling with back pain. Some of our surgeries can be done as outpatient procedures and incisions can be less than an inch long. Our surgeons are trained in Minimally Invasive Techniques – using imaging and microscopes to access the spine by moving muscle tissue out of the way, rather than cutting through it. The infection rate is drastically low — virtually non-existent — and you may need to spend a few nights in the hospital at the most.

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