• Children's Center

    Sharing Mayo Clinic: Back on the court after back surgery

When Division 1 women's college basketball player Jamie Ruden could no longer play through, or live with, the chronic back pain that was keeping her from playing her usual style of basketball, she came to Mayo Clinic for the surgical fix she knew she needed.

Jamie Ruden knew right away something was wrong. It was the summer before her sophomore year at Arizona State University, and the basketball player was in the gym training for ASU's upcoming season when she felt "a pop" in her back.

"I was immediately worried, but I wanted to push through and continue my work out because during the offseason all I wanted to do was get better for the regular season," Jamie says. "Sometimes, you'll have an occasional pulled muscle or something like that you have to work through."

As time went on, however, it became clear the "pop" Jamie had felt in her back was more than just a pulled muscle. "My back started to get worse and worse," she says. "I started to get concerned that I might be seriously injured. But backs are just so tricky that I put off getting an MRI because I kept optimistically thinking that it was just a strained muscle or general back tightness, and that it would resolve itself on its own with rest."

Playing through pain

Later that summer, however, with no improvement in sight, Jamie went in for an MRI, and the source of the problem became clear. "The MRI revealed I had a pretty seriously herniated disk at the L5-S1 lumbosacral joint in my back," Jamie says.

With the extent and seriousness of her injury revealed, Jamie scheduled appointments with several local doctors in Arizona who all recommended the same thing. "They were hoping my disk issue would resolve itself through rest," she says. "So for the next two months, our strategy was for me to take a complete break from basketball."

At the end of those two months, though, little had changed. "We didn't end up seeing a lot of improvement. That's when I started talking with neurosurgeons, chiropractors, and physical therapists here in Phoenix along with our team doctor," Jamie says. "There wasn't really a consensus about what I should do, which was hard for me because I just wanted to get back to playing basketball. I missed being on the court with my teammates and coaches. I was really starting to get anxious during this time."

"There wasn't really a consensus about what I should do, which was hard for me because I just wanted to get back to playing basketball."

Jamie Ruden

Sensing her mounting anxiety and frustration, Jamie's parents talked to her about coming home to Minnesota. "They were doing everything they could for her in Arizona," Jamie's mom, Valerie Ruden, says. "She had a physical therapist who she saw three times a week, but her MRIs were basically looking worse. And since our family is here in Rochester, it made sense for her to come back home and be seen at Mayo Clinic."

After talking it over with her parents, that's what Jamie did. Her first stop at Mayo was the office of Karen Newcomer-Aney, M.D., in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. "Her thought was that I had a pretty intensely herniated disk and there were two different ways we could go about treating it: either have surgery right away, which would result in me missing my entire sophomore basketball season, or go a more conservative route by doing physical therapy and playing through the injury as best as I could," Jamie says.

With her parents' blessing, Jamie chose Plan B. "I played through the season, and it went relatively well. I had back pain, but I was able to manage it enough to where I could play. The physical therapy really helped me," she says.

By season's end, however, Jamie was ready to be done with her back pain once and for all. "I'd just gotten tired of dealing with the chronic pain," Jamie says. "We got another MRI, and that confirmed that my back was in about the same condition it had been at the start. It was pretty clear that surgery would be my best option. My entire care team at Mayo Clinic agreed with that."

Prepping for surgery

With consensus reached on how to move forward, Valerie, a nurse in Mayo Clinic's Department of Surgical Services, knew exactly who she wanted to perform Jamie's procedure.

"I'd gotten to know our chief resident at the time, Meghan Murphy, M.D., really well from taking care of her surgical patients in our Post-Anesthesia Care Unit at Mayo Clinic Hospital, Saint Marys Campus, so I approached her and just asked if she'd take a look at Jamie's MRIs to see what she thought," Valerie says. "She did, and she agreed that surgery was definitely the next step."

With that, Jamie was put on Dr. Murphy's surgical calendar. "She's great," Jamie says of Dr. Murphy. "She's so encouraging and easy to talk to. She's a former college athlete herself, so she really understood what I was going through, and why it was so important for me to get better."

Dr. Murphy also eased Jamie's initial fears about the surgical procedure that was being proposed to fix the lumbosacral radiculopathy — or nerve root compression — that was plaguing Jamie's back.

"It's technically neurosurgery, and the term 'neurosurgery' is what intimidated me the most," Jamie says. "But Dr. Murphy and the rest of my care team helped me understand that it's a very minimally invasive procedure that carries a really good success rate — not only for the general population, but for athletes looking to return to their sports, as well. I was nervous before the procedure, but also so ready to feel better."

"It felt 100 times better. That was pretty amazing to me, and I was so grateful to Dr. Murphy and everyone else on my care team."

Jamie Ruden

She didn't have to wait long. "I was immediately up and walking the next day," Jamie says. "I, of course, had the normal post-surgical pain. But two weeks after the procedure, the difference in my back was night and day. It felt 100 times better. That was pretty amazing to me, and I was so grateful to Dr. Murphy and everyone else on my care team."

As was Valerie. "I don't think it could have gone any better," she says. "Dr. Murphy; Dr. Jeffrey Pasternak, her anesthesiologist; Brian Ogren, her certified registered nurse anesthetist; and Cindy, my co-worker and fellow recovery nurse who took care of her immediately after surgery were all amazing. I remember thinking all the stars were aligning with her surgery because she had a wonderful care team with her the entire time."

That care team also helped lay the groundwork for a recovery and rehabilitation plan that would get Jamie back on the basketball court as soon as possible. "I was able to walk a couple hours after surgery. Four or five days later, I was able to start recumbent biking," Jamie says. "I progressed to an elliptical machine at the four-week mark and started jogging six weeks after my surgery. Once I could start jogging again, things progressed even quicker from there."

Looking ahead

Upon her return to Arizona, Jamie says her athletic trainer at ASU helped her maintain her progress "She's really awesome and worked with me a lot," Jamie says. "She was so supportive throughout my recovery and was able to get me back to doing change-of-direction movements pretty quickly. My surgery was on May 10. By the end of July, I was back to doing most of our basketball drills. That was pretty awesome."

The experience was a welcome change from what Jamie had been feeling and playing through for so long. "The surgery's had a really positive impact on my game. I feel so much stronger and more confident because I don't have any more conscious or noticeable pain that I'm trying to play through," Jamie says. "The surgery Dr. Murphy did for me has freed me up to getting back to playing a much more aggressive style of basketball, rather than shying away from contact, as I had done at times while I was injured."

"I know how important physical therapists have been to my own health and my own recoveries, and I want to help make that kind of a difference for others."

Jamie Ruden

Now as she prepares to head into her last year at Arizona State, Jamie says she's planning to make the most of her final season of basketball before embarking on a career path she hopes will one day lead her back to Mayo Clinic.

"After college, I'm planning to go on to physical therapy school," she says. "I've become very passionate about physical therapy because I've been through a lot of injuries myself. I know how important physical therapists have been to my own health and my own recoveries, and I want to help make that kind of a difference for others.

Dr. Murphy is confident Jamie will do just that and more. "Jamie is such an awesome person," she says. "She really put in the work to get better and was compliant with what her medical team recommended. I think a lot of the credit for her post-op success speaks to her diligence in her recovery and her work ethic. I have no doubts that she'll end up becoming an amazing physical therapist in her own right — probably helping many other athletes compete at the Division I level just like her."


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