Jim Houseman had suffered from back and hip pain for so long, it seemed pain would always be an unavoidable part of life.

The Grand Rapids resident can count some 20 surgeries over his lifetime.

“I’ve had a right hip replacement done,” Houseman, 78, said. “I’ve had 10 kidney stones removed. Many skin cancer operations. And eye surgeries. I’ve built up a high tolerance for pain, but my back and hip pain was too much.”

The pain lingered in his neck, back and hip. And his neck motion remained limited.

“I’ve had two ruptured discs in my neck and two in my back,” he said. “That was about 25 years ago, but the pain has only gotten worse.”

On many occasions, it led him to seek care at an emergency department.

In spring 2021, he went a different route. He contacted his primary physician and got a referral to the Spectrum Health Spine and Pain Management Program.

That connected him with Ryan Felix, DO, MPT, in osteopathic medicine at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital. Prior to specializing in physiatry and pain management, Dr. Felix worked as a physical therapist.

Dr. Felix determined Houseman suffered from lumbar facet arthropathy—a painful, arthritic condition of the facet joints.

“That can cause a lot of pain during any kind of weight-bearing activity and stationary positions,” Dr. Felix said.

Lumbar facet arthropathy is a type of osteoarthritis that can cause lower back pain, specifically in the lumbar spine. It can affect anyone, but usually occurs in people age 65 or older.

There is an increased risk for people with a high body mass index, poor core strength and bad posture, and it is also a very common cause of neck pain, called cervical facet arthropathy.

“Dr. Felix was a great listener,” Houseman said. “He put me right at ease. When I first went to the spine and pain clinic, I had to wait only a few minutes before getting in to see him.”

Finding relief

After talking to Houseman about the pain, Dr. Felix ordered an MRI to get a better look at the problem.

He then began treatment with a diagnostic block, a series of injections that numb the nerves in the affected area.

“We performed two successful diagnostic blocks,” Dr. Felix said. “If the patient gets significant pain relief on the day of the blocks, then the patient will be scheduled for a radiofrequency ablation.

“The ablation will offer them anywhere from six months to more than a year of pain relief in the majority of cases,” Dr. Felix said.

For some patients, a single ablation of the facet joint nerves is enough to stop the pain for more than a year. For others, the pain will recede for six months, with the procedure repeated again at six months if needed.

These patients may need to return for repeat ablations if the initial ablation does not offer them long-term improvement in pain and mobility.

That’s what happened with Houseman.

“Those first injections helped, but then the relief faded,” Houseman said. “I was able to walk with a cane or walker.”

With ablation, he found relief.

“We then cauterized the facet joint nerves that were sending the pain signal to Jim’s brain, with a procedure called RFA, or lumbar radiofrequency ablation,” Dr. Felix said.

The outpatient procedure requires local anesthetic. It’s performed by a three-person team using X-ray guidance.

“Patients generally tolerate this procedure well and go home the same day,” Dr. Felix said.

For Houseman, it made all the difference.

Dr. Felix and the team at the Spectrum Health Spine and Pain Management Program provide a wide variety of comprehensive treatment options for chronic pain.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter approach, because everyone’s pain is different,” Dr. Felix said. “We evaluate the individual.”

Out and about

Houseman is now cherishing the ability to move about.

“The pain now is tolerable,” he said. “I can’t just sit, that’s not me. To be able to sleep and walk and move again … that’s really big. But when the pain returns, I know I can go back to Dr. Felix for another treatment.”

Houseman had always been used to an active lifestyle, interacting with people. He has a bachelor’s in education, a master’s in counseling and another master’s in religious education.

“I love serving people,” he said. “I’m still very active in my church and was a pastor for 35 years, and I taught in public school for six. Now I’m a choir director at a nursing home. One of my hobbies is candy-making. I make candy and then pass it out to people in church and at the nursing home.”

To stay active in retirement, he knew it would be critical to tackle the pain.

“I can join in and play the horn with the choir again,” he said.