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My operation in France: Fused discs

The inside story of readers who have had operations in France – and how they found the health service, by Gillian Harvey. 

A fall from a ladder in 1983 led Karen Knapton, now 72, from Seyches in Lot-et-Garonne to develop back and neck problems many years later. Having had four operations in the UK to remedy her problems, she retired to France in 2006 hoping she would be able to enjoy her retirement in good health.

Initial symptoms

Over the years, I’d had several operations in the UK due to arthritis and problems developed after a fall I’d had in my 30s. My operations in the UK included having part of my clavicle taken off, as well as a procedure to remove discs to decompress the nerves; the last of my procedures in the UK took place in 2005.

I’d always dreamed of moving to France for a better quality of life so when I turned 60 I retired from my job as a superintendent registrar and moved to a house in Seyches on my own.

A year later my husband, Martin, was also able to retire from his job as a manufacturing manager and joined me.

When I moved to France, I was physically able. I used to hike 12km at the weekend with one of my neighbours, and I also started golfing lessons with the hope I’d be able to join Martin – an avid golfer – on the course. However, after six lessons, I started getting severe neck and back pain.


I was already seeing a specialist for my arthritis, and she sent me to see surgeons in Bordeaux. After a series of scans and X-rays, several problems with my spine were identified. Since then, I’ve had two vertebrae fused in my neck, in 2009; three in my back in 2013 and, in 2015, had another two discs fused.


My last back operation took place in 2015 in Bordeaux. I was asked to go in the day before at 3pm and was seen by the surgeon and the anaesthetist the night before.

On the day of the operation, I had to shower in an iodine solution before changing into a surgical gown. I was then taken down to the surgical block.

The operation itself took about an hour and a half, and I was kept in the recovery area afterwards for about two hours before being brought back to my room.

The following day, the physiotherapist gave me a boned back-support to wear all the time, except when sleeping. After putting this on, he encouraged me to stand up and move around. I was advised to use the back support until my follow-up appointment with the surgeon two months later.


Although the pain from the operation itself was minimal, I was a little disappointed to find that the original pain in my back remained. However, it was explained that because I’d had trapped nerves, they can take a year or more to repair themselves.

After a four-day stay in hospital, during which I received excellent care, I was offered three weeks in a convalescent facility. However, I chose to go home where my husband could care for me; preferring to be in familiar surroundings.

At home, a nurse visited every day to inject a blood-thinning treatment to prevent clots.

She changed my dressings every other day and eventually took the stitches out.

After two months, I had a follow-up with my surgeon, who was pleased with my progress, and then another a year from the initial operation.

I was also prescribed physio to strengthen my muscles and help to take the pressure off my back.

While the operation was a success, I experienced further back pain due to a hip problem; I had a hip replacement in 2016.

Clearly, I’m no stranger to the healthcare system in France; and I’ve always been impressed by the care I’ve received.

FACTS ON FUSED DISCS by Dr Steffen Queinnec, orthopaedic surgeon in Clinic Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in Paris

When might a surgeon decide to fuse discs in the back?

The main reason for fusing a vertebral segment is back pain due to degenerative disc disease. We might also operate due to loss of height – adding an intersomatic box to restore the height of the disc. Finally, instability can also be a reason for this kind of procedure.

How does it help the patient?

The fusion gives the patient stability and decreases back pain.

How long does the operation usually take?

Usually, about one hour to one hour 30 minutes for one segment. But the time is not the main goal, sometimes, it can take much more time until you get the feeling it’s perfect.

How long does a patient usually stay in hospital?

About three to five days, depending on the patient’s health and age.

What aftercare is needed?

Patients usually undergo physiotherapy and will also receive care from a nurse.

When can a patient expect to regain full mobility?

A patient who needs fusion always has bad mobility, and not only because of the segment operated on. They will also need physiotherapy and will need to improve fitness to increase mobility.

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