When 16-year-old Rachel Fannin set out to clean her fish aquarium four years ago, she never anticipated the simple chore would change her life and lead to chronic back pain.

Back pain facts

Most people will experience back pain at least once in their life.

People with psychological disorders, such as anxiety or depression, are more likely to experience back pain, but scientists do not yet understand why the two are linked.

Muscle strain, arthritis, bulging discs and ruptured discs are all possible causes for back pain.

Back pain is one of the most common reasons why employees seek medical help and stay home from work.

The Mayo Clinic

During the process, the glass aquarium shattered, and a shard of it sliced open her foot.

“They had to take me to the hospital, and they sewed the glass up in my foot. They didn’t give me anything for infection, and it got infected that week. They said the doctor was really busy, and he didn’t really take his time,” said Rachel, who lived in Phoenix at the time of the accident. She now lives with her family in Johnsonville, near Florence.

The infection spread. Her foot started turning different colors, she said. She was admitted to surgery to remove the glass and clear the infection — then another surgery, then another.

“It was about three years that I was in and out of the hospital about every other month — pretty much all the time,” she said.

The infection cleared, but the nerve damage and the pain remain. Rachel has been diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, she said, making it hard for her to walk or manage the debilitating pain in her legs and back.

That’s when a new procedure at Trident Medical Center entered the picture.

In early January, Rachel received the Precision Spectra Spinal Cord Stimulator implant, a small device installed near her spine that helps ease her back pain with the touch of a button.

“I have a remote. I can turn it up or turn it down,” she said. “It feels like a little tingle, like a little massage going through your leg.”

Dr. Jason Highsmith, the surgeon who installed the implant at Trident, explained the cutting-edge device transmits an electric current to specific nerves that help block pain. Rachel can adjust the level of the current depending on the severity of her pain.

It’s an option for patients who have tried nearly every other avenue to ease their back pain, Highsmith said.

Rachel said it’s working.

“Right now, I can deal with it. The pain’s not that bad,” she said. “It used to be really, really bad where it was hard to walk. I couldn’t really walk. Now I can watch my little sister and I can go outside and play with my little sister. I’m really happy with everything. My doctors were amazing.”

Rachel’s story is unique, but her complaints of back pain are not. Back pain is the most common medical problem in the U.S., according to the National Library of Medicine.

Dr. Bruce Frankel, director of the spine center at the Medical University of South Carolina, said eight out of every 10 people will experience some sort of significant episode of back pain in their lifetimes.

“Our discs normally age and degenerate,” Frankel said. “Some people are more prone to it than others.”

Patience Pierce, 50, of Summerville said she’s dealt with back pain for at least 20 years.

“When I was younger, I worked a lot of physically demanding jobs — a lot of lifting, stuff like that,” Pierce said. “I would attribute it to normal wear and tear.”

The pain was a frustrating fact of life until one night last November, when Pierce said she woke up from what she called “the most excruciating pain I’d ever felt.”

“One disc had ruptured, one had herniated and I had a bone spur. When the disc ruptured, it landed on the nerve bundle. That’s why I was in such severe pain,” Pierce said.

Three weeks later, Frankel performed a relatively new minimally invasive outpatient procedure at MUSC to remove Pierce’s bone spur and fragments of the herniated disc.

She returned home the same day as her surgery with a scar on her back about a quarter-inch wide.

Frankel said minimally invasive back surgery isn’t new, but better technology allows surgeons to operate even more precisely. He said Pierce was about the 10th patient to get this particular procedure at MUSC.

“(The surgery) is done through a tiny little port, almost like a thick needle,” he said. “It’s done through a very, very small entry, so there’s minimal to no pain from the procedure itself.”

Pierce said the surgery changed her life.

“I thought life as I knew it would only get worse. I don’t know many people who have ever had a successful back surgery,” she said. “I bought a bicycle two weeks ago — I’m not riding it yet, but I have every confidence that I will be. I’m so happy. I’m just — wow.”

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.