Health & Fitness

Rockford’s Center of Excellence for Spine Care


Our region has become a surprising location for some of the world’s cutting-edge procedures in spinal care. Meet some of the physicians and organizations that are bringing the best to our community.

Dr. Brian Braaksma, of Rockford Orthopedic Associates, explains a diagnosis to a patient. (Brian Thomas photo)

The mention of back surgery is often enough to make people cringe. Unlike so many other areas of the body, spinal surgery is less straightforward and presents more intangibles and concerns. What spinal specialists can and can’t see makes this field one of the most challenging.

Dr. Brian Braaksma, a fellowship-trained orthopedic spine surgeon with Rockford Orthopedic Associates’ Spine Care Center, 324 Roxbury Road, was drawn to this specialty because it has an element of diagnostic dilemma not always found in orthopedic surgery.

“With broken bones and joint replacements, it’s often fairly obvious what the problem is and what needs to be done to fix it,” he explains. “With patients suffering from spinal problems, what an MRI sees is just the beginning. It’s a diagnostic investigation that demands careful, thorough consideration of the patient’s history, plus a much more extensive examination to determine all of the intangibles that influence the condition.”

While an MRI shows the physical reality, it by no means tells the whole story, Braaksma says. It doesn’t always match the symptoms the patient describes, either. Attention to detail, experience and a problem-solving attitude are required to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. In most cases, the treatment doesn’t involve surgery. In fact, a more conservative approach is taken more than 90 percent of the time.

“The goal of spinal surgery is to eliminate symptomatic nerve compression, and to ensure stability in the spine. We emphasize non-surgical treatment until it becomes clear that surgery is the only way we’ll be able to accomplish those goals,” Braaksma says. “When that occurs, if possible, we use the latest minimally invasive techniques to reduce the patient’s length of hospital stay, risk of infection, blood loss and recovery time.”

Because of tremendous advances in spinal surgery technology, some procedures are done on an outpatient basis, with patients going home the same day, says Braaksma.

“In much of orthopedics, we do the smallest possible incision. Minimally invasive techniques allow us to avoid cutting into muscle, and to reduce blood loss and reduce risk of infection and pain,” Braaksma says. “Spinal surgery, even minimally invasive surgery, is still major surgery – just done through smaller incisions. By improving diagnostic techniques, utilizing conservative approaches and minimizing the surgical approach when necessary, the risk-versus-benefit ratio has definitely shifted in favor of the patient.”

Much care and insight is needed to provide individual patients with exactly what they need. Preserving the integrity of the patient’s spine, while addressing the patient’s problem, is of utmost importance.

Up until about 20 years ago, about 80 percent of spinal surgeries involved simple procedures, with only a very few specialists tackling the more challenging operations, usually at university centers. Of those few specialists, fewer than 2 percent took the time to do additional training for complex spine surgeries.

But as research, technology and methodology advanced, the development of highly specialized centers and surgeons became not only practical, but beneficial to all.

“The short version is that a lot of medical professionals do spinal surgeries without adequate training,” says Dr. Fred Sweet, co-founder of Rockford Spine Center, 2902 McFarland Road. “They may bill themselves as experts, but they don’t always recognize the complexities of some cases or have the experience to adequately treat them.”

Sometimes, they can even make a patient’s condition worse.

“Today, nearly 80 percent of spinal surgeries are still done by surgeons who don’t have fellowship training, and it can be difficult to find the few that are very good,” says Sweet, who’s been in the Rockford area for 14 years. He first joined Rockford Orthopedic and later founded Rockford Spine Center, with the goal of creating a center of excellence just for spinal surgery.

Sweet explains that he’s one of a growing crossover group of neurosurgeons and orthopedic surgeons who’ve evolved beyond the basics by focusing more sharply on spinal problems ranging from scoliosis and disk damage to traumas and other complex problems. All of the surgeons at the Rockford Spine Center are fellowship trained and limit their practice to spinal surgery.

“We don’t do brain surgery, we don’t do knee replacements,” says Sweet. “We’re no longer orthopedic surgeons or neurosurgeons, but spinal surgeons.”

As a result, patients can expect high-quality diagnoses, treatments and surgeries that are the same as, or better than, what they would receive from major university medical centers outside the Rockford community.

“Rockford Spine Center actively recruited like-minded surgeons,” says Sweet. “We hold ourselves to the highest standards, which means we evaluate, make accurate diagnoses and work hard to meet the specific needs of each patient. We take the time to assess lifestyles, cardiac and other health conditions, and physical therapy and other personal requirements after surgery.”

Sweet says the perception that patients must travel out of Rockford for special procedures still persists, but is inaccurate. He points out that Rockford Spine Center is becoming nationally recognized and attracts patients from out of town.

“We publish scientific research and make presentations at national meetings and have been nationally recognized for our patient outcomes,” he says. “Because of this, we’re counted in the upper echelons of spine surgery specialists in the country.”

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