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Shannon Noll still feels the pain from Dancing with the Stars back crack

Noll’s surgeon said it was his only option.

Noll (top left) with the cast of Dancing with the Stars in 2012.

Noll (top left) with the cast of Dancing with the Stars in 2012.

When Noll caught his partner, Elena Samodanova, the impact ruptured one of the discs in his spine, pushing the jelly-like filling out into the spinal canal and pinching the delicate spinal nerves.

“I did it on Dancing. It’s real embarrassing,” says the now 44-year-old singer. “I woke up a couple days later and was in agony, I couldn’t move. I had never had pain like that before.”

The pain started in Noll’s back, ran through his buttock and down into his leg.

Given time, this injury – known as a prolapsed disc – generally heals by itself within a year.

But in cases of acute pain or where nerves are being damaged, some surgeons choose to operate – as in Noll’s case. An ambulance brought him to hospital, where a surgeon opened him up, cut away the spilt jelly and patched the disc.

I said I wasn’t having one, because I’d heard so many horror stories.

Shannon Noll, singer

The searing agony went away. In its place, Noll was left with chronic back pain, which worsened over the next few years to the point that it became unbearable.

“There are people who have the surgery and their leg pain gets better but they still have back pain,” says Professor Chris Maher, director of the Institute for Musculoskeletal Health at the University of Sydney, one of the world’s leading back pain experts – and a spinal fusion sceptic.

“And the problem then becomes when they think they need another surgery, like fusion, to fix up the back pain. And that’s when you’re in a situation where the evidence is very unclear.”

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To treat the chronic pain, several surgeons told Noll he would need a spinal fusion.

The operation removes a damaged disc and then fuses the vertebrae together.

“I said I wasn’t having one, because I’d heard so many horror stories,” says Noll. He worked out intensively, trying to strengthen his core to support his back. He went to a physio. He tried painkilling injections. Nothing worked.

He ended up on the operating table at a Sydney clinic. In scans, the bottom two discs on his spine looked “like a dog’s breakfast,” Noll recalls.

In some cases, when a disc is injured, the body’s attempts to heal it can lead to more problems. There is evidence the healing mechanism can grow nerves inside the disc, where they are not supposed to be. Because these nerves are constantly under pressure, some suspect they can cause chronic pain.

To fix the problem, the surgeon removed both of Noll’s degraded discs, fusing one level and replacing the other with an artificial disc.

Noll's surgery left him with a large scar.

Noll’s surgery left him with a large scar.Credit:Edwina Pickles

But for Noll, and some surgeons, the jury remains out.

A systemic review published in the European Spine Journal in 2007 found little evidence it can be established which disc is causing pain.

A 2005 Cochrane review of fusions and artificial discs for lower back pain – considered the gold standard for evidence – found there was not enough evidence to show either was better than a physiotherapy-based rehab regime.

In a 2012 study published in Orthopaedics of NSW workers’ compensation patients, only about a third who received a fusion or an artificial disc were ever able to return to work. Just three people in 100 who received a fusion returned to pre-injury duties.

UK clinical guidelines recommend against offering either procedure for lower back pain.

On the other hand, a 2017 review published in Neurosurgery found evidence fusion reduced back pain by about 16 per cent and doubled the odds of patient satisfaction.

Dr Mike Selby, a specialist spinal surgeon based in Adelaide, describes spinal fusion as a “last resort”, but says it “can be very successful for this kind of problem”.

Tiger Woods won the 2019 US Masters after having a spinal fusion.

Tiger Woods won the 2019 US Masters after having a spinal fusion.Credit:AP

He points to Tiger Woods: the golfer had three failed back operations before a spinal fusion in 2017. In 2019 he won the US Masters.

For Noll, his back is still painful, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“It’s still painful in the morning. But it’s still slowly but surely dispersing … ” he says.

“I’m not sure if I’ll ever be really pain-free – I’m not sure If I’ll ever be like I was beforehand.

“It’s definitely getting better.”

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