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SDR surgery and early rehabilitation

This is the fourth of five in a series of blog posts on selective dorsal rhizotomy (SDR) in adulthood by Lily Collison — the inaugural author for Knowledge Translation Tuesday for the Cerebral Palsy Research Network (CPRN).  You can comment and discuss the article with Lily on MyCP.org.

Today I will explain a little more about selective dorsal rhizotomy (SDR) and then describe Tommy’s experience of SDR and early rehabilitation.

SDR only reduces spasticity, not other types of high tone. Of the various tone-reducing treatments (oral medications, botulinum neurotoxin injection, phenol injection, intrathecal baclofen, and SDR), SDR is the only irreversible tone-reducing treatment. What do the three words –“selective dorsal rhizotomy” mean?

  • Selective: Only certain abnormal nerve rootlets are cut.
  • Dorsal: “Dorsal” refers to the sensory nerve rootlets–it the sensory nerve rootlets that are cut. (The sensory nerve rootlets are termed “dorsal” because they are located toward the back of the body. The motor nerve rootlets are termed “ventral” because they are toward the front.)
  • Rhizotomy: “Rhizo” means “root,” and “otomy” means “to cut into.”

Putting it all together, “selective dorsal rhizotomy” means that certain abnormal, dorsal nerve rootlets are cut. SDR is a major operation, and the better the rehabilitation, the better the outcome is likely to be. Just as the operation itself varies between institutions, different institutions have different rehabilitation protocols post-SDR. Typically patients undergo intensive physical therapy lasting approximately one year starting in the first days after surgery.

Tommy travelled to St. Paul on Wednesday February 5, 2020 for tests on Thursday followed by his SDR surgery on Friday. The plan was that he would spend four weeks in St. Paul for the initial intensive rehabilitation and then return to work/continue his rehabilitation back in San Francisco, where he lives. My husband and I travelled to St. Paul to support him there. Tommy was admitted on the morning of surgery and wasn’t unduly nervous. (He even pitched the idea of a career change to the anesthesiologist–“Hey come to Lambda School–lots of people are changing career and learning to code” [Tommy works at Lambda School, an online coding school] 🙂.)

There are two SDR techniques, the cauda and conus, named after the level of the spinal cord at which each procedure is performed. The choice of technique is provider-specific but also depends on the patient. The cauda technique was used in Tommy’s case. Dr. Kim (neurosurgeon) performed the surgery with Dr. Ward (Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician) monitoring. The surgery involved removal of the back of the vertebrae (the lamina) in order to access the spinal cord. The dorsal nerve roots were dissected into rootlets, and the rootlets were individually electrically stimulated to determine whether they triggered a normal or abnormal (spastic) response. If a rootlet triggered an abnormal response, it was cut. If not, it was left alone. 30% of dorsal nerve rootlets from L2 to S1 were cut during Tommy’s six hour surgery.

For the first three days post-op, Tommy was confined to lying on his back to allow healing of the dura–the cover of the spinal cord. His pain level was manageable; he did have some stiffness in his back and some unusual sensations in his feet–numbness and hypersensitivity (likely due to the handling of nerve rootlets which would have caused temporary nerve damage). Wound healing progressed well. Three days post-op he was gradually brought to a sitting position and closely monitored for headache (to ensure that the dura was fully healed–no cerebrospinal fluid leakage). He received physical and occupational therapies as an in-patient. He wore knee immobilizers 50% of the time as per plan. He left hospital using a rented wheelchair four days post-op, a day earlier than scheduled. (Indeed, he was well enough to have dinner that evening in the restaurant of our hotel–a goal of Tommy’s.) Over the next three weeks, he attended twice daily out-patient physical therapy and did exercises at home. Posterior leaf-spring AFOs (PLOs) were prescribed and manufactured. During that time he progressed from using a wheelchair to walking with a walker and then to walking with two crutches. The altered sensations he felt in the immediate post-op period, diminished with time. Four weeks post-op (March 4th)–he returned home to San Francisco. Little did we know what was to unfold with COVID-19.

Here are some photos.

Day 4 post-op: Leaving hospital.
Day 4 post-op: Leaving hospital.

Webinar: Patient Reported Outcomes and Shared Decision Making

Unni Narayanan, MD, MSc
Dr. Unni Narayanan is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at SickKids

The Cerebral Palsy Research Network (CPRN) announced that its next webinar in its MyCP Webinar Series will feature Unni Narayanan, MD, MSc who is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at SickKids in Toronto, Canada on Monday, August 17, at 8 pm ET. The topic is “Can we make patient reported outcome measures useful to patients and parents?” Dr. Narayanan has developed several patient-reported outcome (PRO) measures to assess the effectiveness of surgical interventions in cerebral palsy (CP). Now his research is seeking to determine if those PROs can be used to facilitate a shared decision making between patients/caregivers and clinicians. Shared decision making is a process by which clinicians and patients or caregivers collaborate to understand the evidence base behind interventions and the tradeoffs between interventions or alternatives to surgeries and medications. Shared decision making is very important in CP because most surgeries are elective. Dr. Narayanan will present his recently funded research project being done in conjunction with CPRN and then take questions from attendees. The presentation will be approximately 20 minutes followed by an open ended Q&A.

Parents, caregivers and adults with CP can access the PROs developed by Dr. Narayanan by joining MyCP.org where they can be found in the CPRN Community Registry. After completing one of these measures, you can print out the results to share them with your CP physician and facilitate the shared decision making process now!

Interested participants need to register for the webinar to be sent instructions for joining.  Webinars will be recorded and posted for later viewing.  The MyCP Webinar series includes one presentation per month on different aspects of CPRN’s research studies.  Please join us!

Surgical decision-making

This is the third in a series of blog posts on selective dorsal rhizotomy (SDR) in adulthood by Lily Collison — the inaugural author for Knowledge Translation Tuesday for the Cerebral Palsy Research Network (CPRN).  You can comment and discuss the article with Lily on MyCP.org.

We hear a lot about evidence-based medicine. Evidence-based medicine combines the best available external clinical evidence from research with the clinical expertise of the professional. When Tommy was undergoing Single Event Multi-Level Surgery (SEMLS) at age nine in 2004, there were a number of outcome studies from different international centers supporting SEMLS. These outcome studies together with the expertise clearly evident at Gillette, gave my husband and me the confidence to take our nine year old abroad for surgery. This year, sixteen years later–whilst there are a large number of studies from many centers supporting SDR in childhood (including long-term outcome studies)–there is a dearth of research evidence supporting SDR in adulthood. I could find just two studies from one center. Research conducted by CPRN has shown that 5% of individuals who underwent SDR, were aged over 18 years. There is a need for more outcome studies evaluating SDR in adulthood.

Decision-making for undergoing surgical procedures such as SEMLS and SDR is interesting. Parents of young children and later the adolescent and adult themselves are co-decision makers with the clinician in the medical process. We, Tommy’s parents, were largely the decision makers for Tommy’s SEMLS at age nine. (He and I clearly recall discussing the proposed surgery on a long car journey–he was happy to proceed if we felt it was the right thing to do.) The decision to proceed with SDR this year was totally Tommy’s. Whilst it’s easy to understand that parents largely make the decision for children undergoing procedures and adults make the decision for themselves, there is a “grey area” when it comes to adolescents. Thomason and Graham (2013) made the very interesting point that adolescents must be given the freedom to make their own informed decisions about surgery and rehabilitation. They added that an adolescent who feels they have been forced into surgery against their will or without their full consent is likely to be resentful and may develop depression and struggle with rehabilitation. I fully support this view.

For Tommy’s surgery this year, he asked if as a “fly on the wall”, I would accompany him to the multidisciplinary appointment to decide if he was a suitable SDR candidate. Watching from that vantage point, a few thoughts struck me:

  • The evaluation truly was multidisciplinary. The three consultants discussed the surgery in detail together and with Tommy–it was a robust four-way discussion. The clinicians’ decision, that Tommy was a good SDR candidate was unanimous.
  • I was happy to observe that Tommy fully understood what was involved. When the possibility of SDR was first raised, he told me that he read that section in my book and felt it explained SDR very clearly for him (positive endorsement–our offspring are often our harshest critics!) Tommy was making an informed decision to proceed with the surgery–he was an effective co–decision maker in the medical process.
  • The fact that Gillette offers continuity of care for individuals with CP–from childhood right through to adulthood–is hugely important. Tommy has been receiving care at Gillette since he was nine. This continuity of care has benefits on so many levels. It also makes “handing over the baton for healthcare management” from parent to adolescent, so much easier.
  • As a parent, changing role from being an active participant in the medical process, to being a “fly on the wall” (and only then by invitation), takes discipline, but is so worth it.

Thomason P, Graham HK (2013) Rehabilitation of children with cerebral palsy after single-event multilevel surgery. In: Robert Iansek R, Morris ME, editors, Rehabilitation in Movement Disorders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 203–217.

Author note: The photo was taken off the northern Californian coast. It was also there that I took last week’s photo of pelicans flying in V-shaped formation. One of the goals of SDR surgery is to reduce the energy cost of walking. Flying in a V-shaped formation is one of the tricks birds use to reduce the energy cost of flying.