John F. Kennedy’s Life-long Struggles With Chronic Back Pain

JFK’s story illustrates the difficulty and complexity in diagnosing and treating spinal disorders.

At age 43, John F. Kennedy was the youngest president elected into U.S. office, and was portrayed as full of youth and vigor. But he was far from healthy, and spent most of his adult life struggling with many medical problems, including back pain that started during college and lasted until his death, according to a recent review article in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine.

President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie surrounded by dignitaries“JFK’s story illustrates the difficulty and complexity in diagnosing and treating spinal disorders, particularly in the context of chronic pain,” Photo Source: Wikipedia (public domain).John F. Kennedy’s back pain is thought to have started following a football injury, while Kennedy was in undergraduate school at Harvard, explained coauthor Justin T. Dowdy, MD, who is a neurosurgeon at Hot Springs Neurosurgery Clinic, in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Based on 10 years of research on Kennedy’s medical records and reported symptoms, senior author T. Glenn Pait, MD, believes Kennedy had discogenic disease stemming from an injury in his youth that started a cascade of problems in his low back. Dr. Pait is Director of the Jackson T. Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Kennedy was initially rejected when trying to enlist in the Army because of his medical problems, including back pain, but was eventually accepted into the U.S. Naval Reserve through his father’s connections. “This is a testament to his determination to serve his country,” Dr. Pait said. “Kennedy was initially given a desk job, but that was not enough for him, and he was later accepted into a patrol torpedo program.”

Kennedy’s back problems worsened when his naval ship was hit by a Japanese destroyer, after which Kennedy swam for 5 hours to a nearby island while towing an injured crewman to shore by holding the strap of the man’s life jacket between his teeth, Drs. Dowdy and Pait noted in their paper.

The review article describes a series of 4 unsuccessful surgeries, including a sacroiliac (SI) and lumbosacral fusion. Various physicians who treated Kennedy had different theories on the cause of his back pain, and suggested a variety of different treatments ranging from trigger point injections and an exercise program (swimming and weight lifting), to massage and a back brace, to methamphetamine-containing shots. The exercise program, started later in his life, produced “dramatic” improvement, according to the researchers. The program consisted of weight lifting three times per week and daily swimming plus massage and heat therapy.

“JFK’s story illustrates the difficulty and complexity in diagnosing and treating spinal disorders, particularly in the context of chronic pain,” Dr. Dowdy told SpineUniverse. “Our spines age as we age—whether it is degenerative disc disease, pinched nerves, or spinal stenosis—imaging abnormalities are certain to appear later in life. Diagnosing and treating these disorders is as much of an art as it is a science, especially in determining those patients who are likely to benefit from surgery.”

Dr. Dowdy noted that much progress has been made in how spinal conditions are diagnosed and treated since the time when Kennedy sought care, including “the refinement of less-invasive spine surgery techniques and diagnostic imaging.” Dr. Dowdy also emphasized an important point that applies to any era: “the importance of having a trusted spine surgeon who is willing and capable of offering the right surgery in the right circumstances.”

John F. Kennedy’s story also suggests that “the most beneficial methods to prevent chronic back pain are easily accessible and inexpensive,” Dr. Dowdy said. “Often the best course of action for chronic low back pain is actively pursuing appropriate back hygiene: maintaining healthy body weight, refraining from smoking, and pursuing a healthy diet and exercise—especially workouts incorporating yoga-style stretches,” Dr. Dowdy emphasized. “It boils down to pursuing a healthy and active lifestyle.”

“People who suffer from chronic pain might hopefully be inspired to know that Kennedy remained physically active and driven to accomplish his goals despite his pain,” Dr. Dowdy concluded.

Read why the account of John F. Kennedy fascinates Neel Anand, MD, in his article, What Spine Surgery Can and Cannot Fix.


Updated on: 09/17/19
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John F. Kennedy’s Chronic Back Pain Conflicts Revealed
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John F. Kennedy’s Chronic Back Pain Conflicts Revealed

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