TODAY   |  September 11, 2012

600,000 Americans have back surgery each year

Eighty to 90 percent of Americans experience debilitating back pain at some point in their lives. For many, it will go away with rest and conservative treatments, but for some, like NBC’s Tom Costello, surgery is the only option.

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>>> back now at 8:51 with one of the most common medical complaints, back pain. for serious cases it can lead to surgery. it happened to nbc's tom costello who was out several weeks earlier this week while undergoing spine surgery, and he's here to share his story and perhaps a cautionary tale as well.

>> it's just amazing how many people have had serious back pain and i've learned the hard way that not all back pain is the same an pinpointing the exact cause isn't easy. for most americans the pain will go away with rest and conservative treatments. others have a lifetime of managing chronic pain , and for some of us surgery is the only option. early morning at beth israel deaconess medical center in boston.

>> can you hold your knee up straight like that. straighten your knee out, nice and straight.

>> reporter: and 46-year-old jennifer ingah is headed to the o.r., her second operation in two days.

>> is your pain all right in.

>> my pain is okay.

>> reporter: yesterday surgeons made an incision in her abdomen to operate on her spine. today, they are finishing the job going in through her back.

>> just hoping it fixes everything, and i can move on with my life.

>> reporter: jennifer is one of more than 600,000 americans who undergo spine surgery every year, and that number is growing as the population ages and new surgical techniques speed up recovery times. amazingly, 80% 2090 % of americans experience debilitating back pain at some point in their lives. jennifer works as a school bus driver and a house keeper , but she's suffering from severe nerve pain down her leg, keeping her from working and sleeping.

>> i'm nervous, and i'm anxious, but i'm also glad that it will be over with, and i'll be able to sleep through the night again hope fundamentalist i miss that.

>> reporter: her surgeon is dr. kevin mcguire.

>> in her her already-4 vertebrae has slid forward on her l-5 vertebrae, and they are actually collapsed on each other, and due to that slide as well as the arthritis, she has pressure on her nerves, and that's giving her her leg pain.

>> the next step is to get her nerve roots free.

>> reporter: operation involves relieving pressure on the nerves, running down jennifer 's leg and then realigning her vertebrae and stabilizing the spine. this subject really hits home for me. at beginning of the year my lower back pain was turning into severe nerve pain, radiating down my right leg, the skrciatic nerve, into my knee and ankle. i couldn't sleep, couldn't sit and by april i was in the o.r. my surgeon is dr. phil schneider , the director of spine surgery at holy cross hospital in maryland.

>> your disc collapsed at a point where there's bone on bone in the back of the disc. it caused the opening, the foramen to become so narrow, it was crushing your nerve.

>> crushing the sciatic nerve .

>> correct.

>> reporter: he opened up my collapsed vertebrae to free up the nerve and used an a guidance system to insert screws and rods.

>> this is a screw we put in your spine.

>> reporter: along with a bone graft they hold my spine in place. nbc's tom costello is at a gas station in maryland.

>> reporter: a month after surgery i was back reporting for the "today" show.

>> reporter: who would have thought it i'd be back talking about cheaper gas prices and meanwhile, back in boston --

>> the goal of any of these surgeries is to increase a person's quality of life .

>> reporter: jennifer 's surgery went well. soon after surgery she was out walking the neighborhood and plans to be driving the school bus again in october. jennifer and i had new minimally invasive surgery no, cutting through muscle which dramatically speeds up the recovery times.

>> any idea how you developed this back problem?

>> you know, i grew up skiing in colorado. i grew up on the slopes virtually, and i can only guess that it was through years of pounding my back and falling, and some of it may be genetic. my brother has a bad back as pell.

>> you feel better now though?

>> the pain is almost gone. four months after surgery, it's like 95% gone.

>> but it is debilitating. i had back problems earlier this year and it's just awful.

>> almost every one of you have said --