Looking at photos and films documenting John F. Kennedy’s life, you would never guess he had debilitating lower back pain.
Throughout his life Kennedy would battle back pain and undergo several back surgeries while serving as a congressman, senator and president.
It was his lower back pain that may have, ultimately, contributed to his untimely death in 1963, according to experts.
Below is a timeline detailing Kennedy’s bout with back pain as well as some highlights from his political career.
During his sophomore year at Harvard University, Kennedy reportedly suffers a spinal injury while playing football. This is the first of many incidents that would contribute to a lifetime battle with back pain.
Dr. Gilbert “Ned” Haggart, an orthopedic spine specialist at the Lahey Clinic in Boston, diagnoses Kennedy with a “very unstable” lumbosacral joint. He recommends conservative treatment by manipulating the back under anesthesia. Dr. Haggart also suggests sacroiliac Fusion if conservative treatment fails.
Kennedy attempts to join the Army but fails to pass the physical because of his lower back pain.
U.S. Navy Reserve (1941-1945)
On September 24, with the help of director of the Office of Naval Intelligence, Kennedy joins the United States Naval Reserve.
He was commissioned an ensign and joined the staff of the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington, D.C. on October 26.
Kennedy attends Naval Reserve Officer Training school at Northwestern University in Chicago, IL and then voluntarily enters the Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons Training Center in Melville Rhode Island. He is given his first command on December 7.
Kennedy deploys to the Pacific on January 8.
He takes command of PT-109, which is based at Tulagi Island in the Solomon Islands, on September 24.
While performing night time patrols around the Solomon Islands on Aug. 1, PT-109 collides with the Amagiri, a Japaneses destroyer. Kennedy and his crew are thrown from the vessel. As PT-109 sinks, Kennedy rallies his men around him to locate the rest of the crew. During the collision, Kennedy re-injures his back, and despite the pain tows a badly injured crew member for 5 grueling hours to a nearby island with a life vest-strap clenched between his teeth.
An air myelogram is performed on Kennedy at the Mayo Clinic to determine whether or not he has a protruding (herniated) disc. Physicians at the Mayo Clinic, however, did not find evidence of a protruding disk and advised against surgery.
After he was admitted to the Chelsea Naval Hospital in Massachusetts on June 12 to prepare for his first back surgery, Kennedy was awarded a Purple Heart and the Navy and Marine Corp medal for his sacrifice and heroism in the South Pacific.
The first 2 weeks after surgery, He feels great, but his health takes a turn for the worst when walking triggers severe muscle spasms.
His back pain symptoms ease up a bit, but gastrointestinal difficulties hasten his departure from the Navy. On Nov. 25 he is a civilian once again and aspires to political office.
Congressional Career (1947-1960)
With his sights set on political office, Kennedy declares his candidacy for U.S. House of Representatives, Massachusetts 11th district in April. An aggressive schedule of nonstop campaigning over the next few months, however, takes its toll on Kennedy and triggers back pain. Daily back rubs and hot baths help to relieve the pain. He also wears a back brace regularly.
A day before election day, Kennedy collapses while marching in a parade. On June 17, he wins a seat in congress.
Kennedy is elected to the U.S. Senate.
Kennedy undergoes his second back surgery – a sacroilliac and lumbosacral fusion. The procedure is performed by Dr. Phillip Wilson Sr., a renowned orthopedic surgeon. The surgery has a high risk of complications or death associated with his Addison’s disease, but he moves forward with the procedure anyway.
Trigger point injections of local anesthetics are administered by his long-time physician Dr. Janet G. Travell to treat myofascial pain.
Kennedy undergoes surgery on September 13 to drain a superficial lumbar abscess that developed at the site of injections.
Kennedy announces his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States on January 2.
Several months later, on November 8, JFK, 43, would defeat Richard Nixon to become the youngest President of the United States.
Kennedy injures his back during a May tree-planting ceremony and Dr. Travell begins a regimen of procaine injections. He also returns to using crutches and a back brace to walk and stabilize his back.
He shows dramatic improvement by October after embracing an exercise and rehabilitation program prescribed by Orthopedist and physiatrist Hans Kraus. The program includes weightlifting sessions three times a week, daily swimming, massage and heat therapy.
As his back condition improves, Dr. Kraus encourages Kennedy to stop using his back brace.
He is Diagnosed with left iliopsas strain (pain at the front of the hip) and advised to use heat therapy and wrap his hip and lower back with an Ace bandage.
On September 22, Kennedy is assassinated during a visit to Dallas, Tx. Dr. John Lattermer, a Kennedy assassination expert, has theorized that the combination of the Ace bandage and back brace kept Kennedy in an upright position after the first shot, allowing Lee Harvey Oswald to to focus his scope and land the second shot to the head. If he hadn’t been wearing a brace that day, he would have slumped over in the car seat after the initial shot hit his neck.
President John F. Kennedy’s journey was typical of many patients with back pain at the time. Complication and infection rates were common as spine surgeons performed open back surgeries and experimented with new imaging technologies and injections.
Minimally invasive spine surgery wasn’t really a thing until the late 1970s and early 80s when spine surgeons started to develop arthroscopic and laparoscopic techniques.
When some people today hear they may need back surgery, they are reminded about their parents’ or grandparents’ back surgery.
Today’s minimally invasive spine surgeons, however, perform microendoscopic and microscopic procedures through a small, lateral incision less than an inch. A series of dilating tubes are inserted through the small incision and spread muscle fibers apart to access the spine. This approach results in less trauma to the tissue surrounding the spine and a shorter recovery period. Unfortunately many spine surgeons still prefer the older, open back surgery approach that takes weeks and months to recover.
Because the minimally invasive approach takes years of training to master, some spine surgeons are reluctant to learn despite the better surgical outcomes for patients.
The minimally invasive spine surgery approach, has allowed BioSpine’s patients to leave the surgery center on the same day as their procedure. This eliminates costly overnight hospital stays and greatly reduces the chances of developing a post-surgical infection.