spine journal dishes on jfk’s chronic back pain and back surgeries

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY’S
CHRONIC BACK PAIN

JFK Spinal Surgeries

“The 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy (JFK), experienced chronic back pain beginning in his early 20s. He underwent a total of 4 back operations, including a discectomy, an instrumentation and fusion, and 2 relatively minor surgeries that failed to significantly improve his pain. This pain affected him nearly continually from his undergraduate years at Harvard until the day of his assassination.  From the study being discussed today

With a presidential legacy that includes MASSIVE TAX CUTS (not simply Income Tax but “the confiscatory property taxes being levied in too many cities“), increasing the spending on national defense to half of all federal expenditures (nearly 10% of GDP), as well as a hard stance against abortion (he appointed Byron White to the SCOTUS who wrote the dissenting opinion in Roe v Wade), I’m not sure JFK would feel much at home in today’s Democrat Party. 

On the other hand, despite the fact that he is deeply beloved and considered by public opinion to be one of America’s greatest presidents, many have forgotten that his legacy also includes the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion which subsequently led to him being verbally and politically bludgeoned by Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit — an event that arguably led to both the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis — not to mention moving US military “advisors” into Vietnam.  JFK was also responsible for starting our failed war on poverty in earnest (even though LBJ usually gets the credit), along with avoiding the Civil Rights issue like a hot potato solely for political reasons until it literally backed him into a corner, fell into his lap, and forced his hand. That being said, Kennedy was undoubtedly a war hero.

Shortly prior to the famous PT-109 incident of WWII, Kennedy became a commander for a Motor Patrol Torpedo Boat in a squadron of PT boats in the South Pacific (he served in the Solomons and Russell Islands — Tulagi, Kolombangara, New Georgia, Rendova, etc).  In going up against the resupply barges and the hit-and-run tactics of the warships of “The Tokyo Express,” PT-109 encountered the Japanese destroyer, Amagiri.  JFK’s PT-109 was sitting at idle on a pitch black night waiting for an opportunity to attack the enemy, when the Amagiri appeared from nowhere and cut Kennedy’s vessel in half, killing two of his crew, and severely injuring two more.  Clinging to the wreckage for 12 hours before coming to the realization it was sinking, Commander Kennedy understood that to survive he and his men would have to abandoned the sinking debris and make a break for shore. Heroically, JFK towed a severely burned crew member to shore by swimming (between 4-5 hours) while clenching the strap of the man’s life jacket in his teeth. 

Because the island was deserted — only about 100 yards across — with no water, Kennedy swam 3 miles to another island to find water and see what could be done about the possibility of rescue. Kennedy and his men survived for six days on coconuts and coconut water before being found by natives that had been dispatched by an Australian naval observer living on top of a dormant volcano on KOLOMBANGARA ISLAND — and island holding 10,000 Japanese troops (the observer had seen the explosion and sent the natives out to look for survivors).  Kennedy scratched out a message on a coconut that was taken back to lieutenant Arthur Evans (the observer), who then sent natives back to pick him up in a canoe, bring him back to Kolombangara, where he could help coordinate a rescue for his crew.

Not only is this story amazing, it’s made all the more amazing because of the terrible back pain Kennedy suffered with his whole life (his politically powerful father had to pull several strings to get “Jack” OK’d for military duty by burying his failed military physicals due to “a bad back“).  In similar fashion to the article on ELVIS PRESLEY’S HEAD INJURY that led to (or at least heavily contributed to) his rapid and premature downfall; just days ago, the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine ran a story by a pair of well known physicians called John F. Kennedy’s Back: Chronic Pain, Failed Surgeries, and the Story of its Effects on his Life and Death.

Because I dealt with a decade of chronic pain myself before finding someone to help me solve it (HERE), and because five days a week I deal with people who struggle with debilitating chronic pain (HERE), and because I watched the incredible strength and toughness of my FATHER-IN-LAW who managed to lead a “normal” life despite spending a year in an iron lung with polio and suffering through terrible post-polio syndrome as he got older, I have at least a tiny (tiny) degree of understanding of what JFK went through. CHRONIC PAIN changes people — it destroys mind, body, and soul.  I find it astounding that Kennedy was able to accomplish what he did despite living with the kind of pain and health problems that he did.

There have been slews of articles written about JFK’s back pain, as well as the fact that for years his personal physician was DR. JANET TRAVELL, who, along with Dr. David Simmons, wrote the “bible” on MYOFASCIAL TRIGGER POINTS (Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction: Trigger Point Manual).  She and Simmons not only mapped out the areas where Trigger Points tend to occur most frequently, but their crazy pain-referral patterns as well.  These authors say of Dr. Travell.

“In 1955, Kennedy was introduced to Dr. Janet Travell, a Cornell University pharmacologist and internal medicine specialist known for her work using trigger-point injections of local anesthetics to treat myofascial pain. Senator Kennedy was treated with ethyl chloride spray [Spray and Stretch] and procaine trigger-point injections.  This hospitalization marked the first of hundreds, if not thousands, of procaine trigger-point injections…. [and] marks the end of his major back surgeries and a shift in focus toward muscular and environmental factors contributing to his back pain.”

On May 29th of this year, JFK would have been 100 years old.  Something that the general public was unaware of (at least initially) is that despite his public persona of health and vitality, Kennedy (in similar fashion to Teddy Roosevelt) was a very sickly child, having nearly died from Scarlet Fever at age two. His childhood troubles didn’t end there, however.  According to several sources supplied by these authors, “he would be treated for a host of illnesses prior to his graduation from preparatory school.” The most interesting health-related fact in this entire story, however, had to do not simply with the fact that he had back pain, but with the cause of his back pain. 

“Dr. Marius Smith-Petersen concluded: ‘I don’t think this is a disc since the pain complained of does not even remotely resemble a disc.’ Dr. Smith-Petersen requested that JFK also consult with Dr. James White, a naval neurosurgeon who agreed that Kennedy’s current pain was inconsistent with sciatica.  The Mayo team stated that ‘a diagnosis of a protruded disk was not definite … at this time you are not in need of surgery.
 
In other words, Kennedy was debilitated with back pain that was probably not DISC-RELATED, but not having better solutions (or at least not having been introduced to better solutions by a HIGHLY ANTI-CHIROPRACTIC MEDICAL PROFESSION), he decided to undergo SPINAL SURGERY in 1944 — over a year before the war’s end.  This leads me to a couple of conclusions that I have discussed on this site many times.  Debilitating low back pain has several causes that have nothing whatsoever to do with spinal discs (HERE).  It also leads to the conclusions that Dr. Travell came to in her studies, and what eventually led Kennedy to her — albeit unfortunately after his failed back surgeries — that the TWO SIDES OF THE MYOFASCIAL SYNDROME — Scar Tissue / Fascial Adhesions and Trigger Points can produce debilitating / crippling pain (LH of Indy, I am thinking of you right now) that leaves the vast majority of the medical community starring at you with a deer-in-the-headlights look because these sorts of problems do not show up on MRI (HERE). 

Shortly after the war’s end, JFK leveraged his name and war hero status to be elected first as a Representative and then a Senator.  During this time he was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease — a near total loss of adrenal hormones that is a step beyond ADRENAL FATIGUE and HARDCORE SYMPATHETIC DOMINANCE, although it carries some of the same general symptoms. Wikipedia says the chief signs of Addison’s Disease include, “fatigue; lightheadedness upon standing or difficulty standing, muscle weakness, fever, weight loss, anxiety, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, sweating, changes in mood or personality, and joint and muscle pains.” Think for a moment about this.  JFK not only dealt with horrendous back pain, but the nightmare of Adrenal Insufficiency as well (yes, Addison’s is another of the numerous AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES).

This is where things started to go off the rails.  After his second surgery, Kennedy had several near-death experiences due to staph infections and an inability of his wound to heal.  A friend said of Kennedy’s wound, “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. His pain was excruciating.”  Despite Travell’s help with strengthening and rehabilitating his spine, which “led to significant improvement in JFK’s low-back health and overall functioning during this time,” Kennedy ended up requiring one more surgery (his fourth spinal surgery) to “fix” staph-induced abscesses (not to mention a ton of ANTIBIOTICS that would have further degraded his GUT HEALTH along with his overall health and IMMUNE SYSTEM FUNCTION).

While running for the 1960 Democrat nomination for POTUS, his opposition, LBJ, revealed and harped on Kennedy’s health problems in similar fashion to the way Trump did with Hillary, before eventually becoming his running mate (and then President after the events of November 22 of 1963).  Right before his FAMOUS DEBATE (remember the sweating?) with eventual Republican President, Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon, JFK had his first dose of “medicine” (“a vitamin cocktail that included amphetamine derivatives“) from DR. FEELGOOD.

“Although his back was in comparatively decent shape, the 1960 campaign took its toll, prompting Kennedy to seek the services of Dr. Max Jacobson, a German immigrant practicing in New York.  Over the ensuing summer JFK’s physical condition was at its worst point in years. Not for a long time had he been in such agony. This prompted a return to frequent use of crutches, procaine injections, his corset brace, and an increase in the illicit injections from Jacobson. The poor state of his back and its effect on JFK’s overall well-being may have had a considerable and negative impact on the President’s performance at the crucial Vienna Summit with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961. In fact, on the 1st day of the tense summit the president received at least three of the methamphetamine-containing shots. Reeling from the nerve-wracking summit, his aching back, and the likely side effects of Jacobson’s methamphetamine shots, the very gloomy Kennedy admitted immediately after it ended that the summit did not go well—reflecting that Khrushchev just beat the hell out of me.”

One of the White House physicians, Rear Admiral George C. Burkley, took it upon himself to have Kennedy evaluated by yet another expert — this time, renowned orthopedist and physiatrist HANS KRAUS.  President Kennedy was, “placed on an exercise and rehabilitation program built around the White House pool and gym. The program consisted of a combination of thrice-weekly weight-lifting sessions and near-daily swims, along with massage and heat therapy — and paid immediate dividends. Within months, the improvement was dramatic.”  Interestingly enough, there are many, including these authors, who suggest that Kennedy’s continued reliance on a rigid back brace is what held him upright so that Lee Harvey Oswald could get off subsequent kill shots after a first shot that was, according to these authors, “potentially survivable“.

The conclusions that the authors came to were that at least at first, there was nothing radiographically to show that JFK had a serious back problem, nor anything in his examinations that led experts to believe his problem was related to a disc herniation.  Because these authors also believe that Kennedy’s problems started out as (and I quote) “MECHANICAL LOW BACK PAIN,” it’s nothing less than shameful that CHIROPRACTIC CARE was never tried (there is no historic record of such, nor have I seen anything about Dr. Kraus doing any spinal manipulations).

No matter what your political bent or opinion of him as a leader, Kennedy’s ability to continually move forward in the face of incredible pain and dysfunction is nothing short of miraculous.  To read the entire paper by T. Glenn Pait, MD, and Justin T. Dowdy, MD, simply go HERE.

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