JFK's History of Back Pain: What Can We Learn from Medical Records?

A Review of a Notable American Pain Patient, President John F. Kennedy

We offer a somewhat different selection for today’s Daily Dose, in the form of an interesting examination of the etiology and treatment of President John Kennedy’s chronic back pain. Authors T. Glenn Pait, MD, and Justin Dowdy, MD, reviewed case notes from JFK’s medical record, as well as spinal imaging studies documenting decades of surgical interventions and debilitating structural changes. The account offers a perspective on the diagnostic and treatment alternatives that constituted state-of-the-art practice for the day, as were available to a patient of Kennedy’s stature and resources. Published yesterday ahead of print in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine, the authors’ abstract concludes “This information may lead to a better understanding of the profound effects that JFK’s chronic back pain and its treatment had on his life and presidency, and even his death.”

Beyond surgical intervention, the authors consider the impact of subsequent alternative therapies, including trigger-point injections and local anesthetics, but also shifting in focus toward muscular development and environmental modifications. The authors note that, in this period of Kennedy’s life in the latter 1950s, “The emphasis regarding treatment of his back would move in a more cautious direction going forward, and notable functional restoration would be seen over the next few months.” Perhaps most notably, the examination documents the determination of a patient in chronic pain, described by the authors as “…both the youngest man elected president in the nation’s history and perhaps the 20th century’s least healthy one” to sustain quality of life and maintain functionality. 

Read the complete article.

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