AUSTIN, Texas -- Carol Cofer, 83, enjoys playing tennis with Brian Lusson, the director of tennis at Westwood Country Club. She started playing tennis at the age of 42. Some 40 years later, she is a member of the National Senior Women's Tennis Association. Cofer's finished in the top three several times in her age bracket at USTA national tournaments.
"I've always been involved in sports," said Cofer. "I swam and ice skated."
However, more than a year ago she felt something wasn't quite right.
"It started with tingling down my leg, and I thought, 'Uh-oh this is something new,'" said Cofer.
Before long, Cofer couldn't stand for more than 10 minutes without intense pain and a numbing sensation traveling down her leg.
"This is a slow process like rust," said Mark Burnett, M.D., a neurosurgeon with the Neuro Texas Institute at St. David's. "Most commonly in older patients, when you get arthritis, the joints in the spine build up like rust on the inside of a pipe. The nerves don't have as much room to get by. It's sort of like having a highway that goes from six lanes to two lanes."
Burnett performed a laminectomy to decompress the nerve roots in the spine. Then he fused two of Cofer's vertebrae together. Burnett says neither procedure is uncommon. What is uncommon is getting doctors and older patients to realize there doesn't have to be an age limit on certain elective surgeries.
"Older people who stay active and healthy are still surgical candidates and good ones," said Burnett. "Operating on someone like Carol is an easy choice for me in comparison to operating on some younger, less healthy 40-year-olds that I have."
Cofer was back hitting tennis balls in three months and playing competitively again three months after that.
"I have no pain; no pain in my back, no pain in my leg," she said. "It's like I'm a new person."
Burnett says it's all about patient selection. He says obviously doctors aren't going to suggest patients in their 80s get surgeries that take a year to recover. However, if someone in their 80s is relatively healthy and can have something fixed fairly quickly,- then he says they should consider having that procedure done.
Click here for more information on the Neuro Texas Institute.