JFK’s Back Problems: A Fresh Review of His Medical Records

JFK’s Back Problems: A Fresh Review of His Medical Records

By Staff.

Scarlet fever, long-standing gastrointestinal disease, Addison’s disease, and chronic back pain – these are some of the medical issues faced by the 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK), during his short life.

JFK promoted himself as a young, vibrant and healthy man, but this image was far from the truth given the plethora of ailments he suffered since his childhood.

In a new article in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine, “John F. Kennedy’s back: chronic pain, failed surgeries, and the story of its effects on his life and death,” authors T. Glenn Pait, MD, and Justin T. Dowdy, MD, focus primarily on JFK’s back problems, which remained a constant companion from his college years until his death. In preparing this paper, Pait and Dowdy reviewed case notes written by various physicians who undertook care of JFK’s back. They also examined spinal imaging studies obtained over decades of treatment, documenting a history of debilitating structural changes. In addition, the authors discuss JFK’s other intermittent and chronic health problems, their relationships to his spinal disorder, and the possible effects that his ill health may have played on his career and even on his death.

JFK first experienced low-back pain while an undergraduate student at Harvard University, perhaps because of a football injury sustained in 1937. His back problems initially prevented wartime enlistment in the armed services in 1940, but his father’s political influence helped JFK obtain a commission in the US Naval Reserve in 1941.

History books recount the events on PT-109 that earned JFK a medal for heroic conduct. During World War II, the PT (patrol torpedo) boat to which Kennedy was assigned was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in 1943. JFK rescued an injured crewman by swimming for 5 hours with the crewman in tow. The impact of the ship collision and the physical exertion of the rescue exacerbated the future president’s back problems, and less than one year later, JFK underwent the first of four spine surgeries.

The authors describe preoperative and postoperative physical and imaging findings associated with these surgeries, which spanned the years of 1944 through 1957. The first two surgeries did little to improve JFK’s condition and in fact resulted in severe complications and additional pain. The third operation was performed to remedy the effects of the second operation, and the fourth operation to clear out infection at the previous operative site.

The authors discuss the relative value of diagnostic tests of the time and the decisions leading to the spine surgeries. They also discuss the means used to reduce JFK’s chronic pain so that he could function as president and maintain his image of a strong, vibrant leader at the top of his game. Last, the authors address the controversy over whether JFK’s use of a back brace contributed to his death at the hands of an assassin in 1963.

When asked about the paper, Dr. Dowdy said, “The most surprising finding during the research for this paper was the overall amount of severe pain JFK endured throughout his short life and, frankly, how he was able to hide his pain and medical ailments from the general public so well.”

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Authored by: Staff

There are 19 comments for this article
  1. JK at 12:42 am

    My hubby has Addisons disease as well as MS. The Addisons disease has caused some pretty scary times for us. When he has an adrenal crisis (or adrenal storm), I have to call an ambulance and get him to the hospital pronto. He usually has at least 1 crisis a year. Without proper and swift treatment, Addisons disease can be fatal. Usually a crisis is brought on by an illness or excess stress, like having a stomach bug, or a cold…or being involved in a car accident. Ironically even “good” stress can bring on a crisis. We joke if we ever won the lottery I’d have to tell hubby at the hospital so treatment would be handy.
    Short definition of Addisons disease: The adrenal glands produce too little… or in my hubby’s case no, cortisol (aka as the fight or flight hormone). Without it the body can’t maintain homeostasis, it goes into shock, and it’s all downhill from there.
    In my hubby’s case, the crisis usually come on out of the blue. He can be fine and within literally 2-3 minutes he’s down for the count… vomiting, uncontrollable diarrhea, severe pain (especially in the abdomen, lower back, and legs) and muscle spasms… I’ve literally seen the muscles rippling in spasm in his legs. My hubby’s Endocrinologist actually had a family member die from delayed treatment and adrenal crisis complications. When I read about JFK having Addisons disease I was shocked. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Though some of the people responsible for trying to deny legitimate pain patients access to pain meds that can help the person’s quality of life might change their tune if they had to deal with it or any other issues that can cause severe pain.

  2. Rachel at 5:13 am

    Why on Earth other than profit are pharma developing complex meds for constipation for opiate users? Macrogol is safe, effective and cheap. Been around for years.

  3. Notasheep at 8:30 pm

    I looked up the link. JFK was on narcotics and received methephetamine injections.
    Wow.

  4. Sandra gayle at 4:12 pm

    If JFK was still with us this would not be happening would it….

  5. Maureen Muck at 9:51 am

    I agree, I feel that JFK surely had to be receiving medical assistance. I certainly hope so.
    I only know for myself how Opana can give me back some quality of life. And on those “I Want To Put My Head Through a Wall” days, Opana at least takes the edge off. I have Trigeminal Neuralgia, formerly known as the “Suicide Disease.”

  6. Jill at 10:42 pm

    This was interesting and it caught my eye to begin with because I suffer from chronic back pain..it’s pretty much taken over my life..I’m 39 years old and I feel 99. I have never tried any pain meds except Alleeve. I have ME/CFS and I suffer everyday..I can’t find the help I need..

  7. Ibin Aiken at 2:08 pm

    Same, narrative, now. JFK presented himself as strong physically, mentally, and spiritually for years. How did he do it after 4 spine surgeries and other negative health afflictions? I would BET that he was not that “steel willed”..

    I have remained very mobile, presented myself as “perfectly healthy” for over 20 years with, 2 back “failed” surgeries, two surgical plates implanted and four surgical screws driven into my vertebra,. It never stops giving me grief. Some days, pain is not very bad. Some days it is unbearable. Even if, I stayed home, did nothing but lay supine all day, the pain never stops. With opioid medication, I have been able to remain employed, function socially with my family, and very few people even within my “family” knows that I even use…..opioid medication.

    I thought that I was truly out of commission, after surgery “heal time” and the pain was still unbearable . ALL therapies, non opioid medication, PT, “counseling”, and some “invented” exercises by myself, for self help, did not help……the pain. I was placed on a very low dosage of very low content of opioid medication. It has evolved to over 90 mme maximum daily after 20 years yet, it is not toxic, too much…… for me.

    IF JFK in fact, did not use medication, he was truly a superman however, I strongly tend to believe that no one, when their personal maximum tolerable pain level has been realized can absorb never ending pain. Either with continuous pain generating disease or injury of the body, there IS documentation that opioid medication ….does reduce continuous pain. If the dosage is appropriate to the patient, which only the provider can realize, even if it exceeds 90 mme daily, maximum, to actually benefit……the patient does not harm the patient, then how can a set maximum dosage even be considered?

    The CDC “guideline” is a social “experiment” in the effort to thwart misuse, abuse, and re-distributing of medication forced upon the patient with pain, with accusation of ALL patients that use in excess of 90 mme daily, maximum, are guilty of all the opioid “crisis” perceived in this country. NO justification for medication reduction to a set, maximum level, with zero tolerance for variation of 90 mme. Action forced upon the patient with pain through “blackmail” upon our providers for forfeiture of a hard earned license to prescribe appropriate medication. Even if the medication is the evil opiate based, pain relieving, last medicine, that will ease the pain for the patient.

    I personally, do not know, any patient with pain, that can absorb, tolerate, accept a pain level when it reaches their personal threshold. The patient will seek, pain relief. After 20 years of successful, beneficial use of opiate medication that has evolved to exceed the CDC 90 mme maximum with ZERO negative health issues, only carefully attended prescribing through examination, social “studies”, and appropriate prescribing through my provider who uses due diligence within the expertise of his education, experience and knowledge of my personal, individual beneficial experience of in excess of 90 mme, I CAN say that opiate medication use HAS been the only way that I have been able to remain self reliant, self sufficient, and a sovereign individual among my fellow man.

    If JFK, with his personal health conditions was in fact in continuous pain and did not use medication, then lets “open the books” and relate to the patient with continuous pain just exactly, how he did it. I, along with “quite a few” other people in the USA and around the world would like to know.

  8. Mary A. Rooney at 10:21 pm

    In addition to chronic pain I discovered, as an adult, that I have ADHD. Aside from comical looks on the faces of pharmacists when I got my opioid and amphetamine filled at the same time, it was never a problem. Then several years ago the DEA went after ADHD meds, specifically Adderall. Because ADHD is so well documented in children and adolescents, and there are objective, measurable results that show the meds improve functioning across the board, their campaign wasn’t as radical. However, they declared there was a “crisis” going on, they blamed patients who used the drugs appropriately for “diverting”, or selling and giving away the medications to the non-ADHD population, and they started cutting back on the supply. My psychiatrist, who is an award-winning child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist, as well as an addictions specialist, is no longer able to prescribe the preferred Adderall XR for me because the end result of the DEA campaign was the across the board reduction in the allowed amounts psychiatrists are allowed to prescribe. Adderall is prescribed according to body weight. Now I have to take the immediate release tablets, at 8AM and 1PM, but I usually forget the 1PM (ADHD person’s joke) dose, and my functioning has suffered. Now that I can’t get opioids anymore I’m in pain all the time and life has become a really grim prospect. But I have the satisfaction of knowing that, since I never hear about the ADHD meds crisis anymore, the DEA has solved the crisis and saved the day by lowering my quality of life. And they are not done yet.

  9. Jim at 6:58 pm

    Thank You Candi!! Well said. Well written. I agree 100% . I worry constantly about losing my meds due to this “opiod crisis”. For 10 yrs I have played by the rules, passing all the “tests”. Why should we be punished for the thoughtless, illegal actions of those looking to make a quick easy buck? We are not the culprits or criminals! We are now the victims of those in high places looking for a quick fix that will not work. I cannot live in the pain I was in for four years, being NOT able to go to grandchildren parties, graduations, or just being able to take a walk out here in the cajun boonies. This was all before recieving meds, opiates, that since then, I can live not a normal life, but tolerable.
    Thanks again Candi.

  10. Linda at 5:20 pm

    I agree, no doubt he had a good regiment of opiods. I am surprised however, that the research done for this article did not include his lifelong list of medication. Without that information included, this is not a full picture of what he endured or didn’t endure. This is a gray area. He was able to be President after all. It “could” just go to show you what we’re capable of when treated with true pain relief!

  11. Kaitlin at 4:19 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with Candi Simonis. The discrimination against real people with real illnesses, is off the charts.And someone should be looking into it.Punishing genuine Ill patients,by with holding pain medications,from them is abuse,in itself.Depriving them quality of life..

  12. Larry Wilson at 3:18 pm

    I agree with you Debbie I have fought chronic pain all my life. I broke my neck when a rope hung me on my motorcycle at high speed as it was hit horizontally by my handlebars and encircled my neck then drug me to a stop, I still have the scar. That was 45 years ago and it has given me trouble every single day since. Coupled with 15 other fractures and then to make things worse this past March I injured my neck twice again in the same week, one was a whiplash. So I agree some people need opiods to fight chronic pain. The DEA has gotten so much tougher on it they make it almost impossible for the chronic pain clinics. And it’s only gonna get worse I am afraid. As Candi said they need to listen to the doctors what does a bureaucrat know about pain unless they broke something and it didn’t heal correctly. It’s no joy ride folks and you don’t know how often I have thought of suicide just cause I am worn out from fighting and fighting day in and day out never getting a break for one minute.

  13. Andrea Cresson at 12:43 pm

    Candi Simonis thank you!
    YES, what she said!!! Hoping President Trump takes a different stand for the mess that Obama left our country in.

  14. MichaelL at 11:26 am

    Well said, Candi. Too bad the people in charge are so far away from the person that is “caring” for us. I am a spinal cord injury patient, with a post-traumatic neuropathy. I was a surgeon who took extra training in pain management. I have been “through the mill”! I know all sides of the problem. But, sadly, some people with minimal education know more than the politicians who “know” we are all addicts! Too bad we don’t have JFK around to stand up for us!

  15. Tom Horn at 10:20 am

    He got cortisone shots is what I remeber. I tried cortisone it never really helped me. I hope it gave JFK relief from his suffering . If you have never suffered chronic pain then you have no idea how it rules your life.
    JFK was a great man he tried to take on the wrong people. It is so sad they took him out. Proves who really controls us.

  16. Maureen Muck at 9:38 am

    Not surprising, considering his strengths during his presidency. This article only raises my level of respect for JFK.

  17. Candi Simonis at 6:06 am

    At that time, I’m positive he was receiving adequate pain management and care. Now we chronic pain disease patients are not being adequately cared for due to all these Government agencies impinging on our care.
    This war on “opioids” is actually a war on chronic incurable diseases. A war on chronic pain disease patients who benefit from opioid medications. Medications that enable millions of Americans relief of chronic debilitating pain associated with these diseases.
    The fiction, widespread hysteria and distorted truths about this “opioid epidemic”, is killing legitimate chronic pain disease patients who use their medications responsibly. We are patients.
    100 million Americans have one or more chronic incurable pain Diseases. As the CDC, DEA, FDA, Medicaid and Medicare, and numerous other government agencies, are blaming Doctors for the over prescribing of opioid medication. NOBODY, is looking at or reading the statistics from chronic pain disease patients. How about NOT addressing these drugs as dangerous and addictive. When all else fails: physical therapy, exercise, over the counter medications and numerous injections etc, we chronic pain disease patients, are left with one option to help us cope, opioid pain medication. Lets address this medication as lifesaving and medically necessary for the million of Americans with chronic diseases. Chronic pain is a disease. Chronic pain disease patients are now the epidemic. The addiction rate of chronic pain disease patients is .02-.6 %. We do not misuse or abuse our medications.
    No other disease medication is scrutinized. We, as patients, are being denied, dismissed, overlooked and discriminated against, by our physicians, due to all the scrutiny associated with treating chronic pain disease with opioid medications. Our Dr’s are afraid to treat us humanely and adequately. We have a disease that medication is readily accessible and beneficial to us and we are being denied. We, pain patients, are being discriminated against, due to people who abuse illegal heroin and illegal fentanyl. This is a direct hunt for Doctors who prescribe life saving medication, for pain disease patients, that benefit from them. We have our privacy invaded, we no longer are able to have doctor/patient confidentiality. We now have insurance agencies, pharmacists, and other government agencies in our physicians offices, monitoring, prosecuting and policing our physicians.
    Though the statistics show a reduction in, opioid medications distributed, due to the CDC guidelines, death rates of overdoses from illegal opioids is rising.
    The specific causes of deaths also needs to be closely investigated. The opioid in the person’s system needs to be specified. Was it an illegal opioid, was it opioid medication specifically for that person, was there other drugs or alcohol involved? These statistics need to come out. These Government agencies do not want that information out, due to the fact that this “opioid epidemic”, would then be debunked.
    Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Restricting or taking away our medications is like FORCING people who do not want this medication to take it. One day those against these medications will need them but they will be denied.
    We have a chronic disease. We want to be able to take care of our homes, our children, our selves, as much as possible. Without access to these life saving medications, we are unable to do so. We want to live, not just exist in pain 24/7.
    We need the government agencies to look at the real statistics, not the hand picked. These agencies are not physicians. They are trying to doctor us, patients, without a medical license. They are also trying to police our physicians. This is a war on a disease, medications, physicians and patients.
    We, chronic pain disease patients, need help. All the headlines, topics and stories on how opioids are bad and how people are abusing, misusing, overdosing, becoming addicted or dying from them. We need to look at the good they do and how they help our disease of chronic pain and the million of Americans who use them for some relief.
    The government needs to put the focus on illegal drugs coming into, being manufactured and distributed in this country, illegal fentanyl, illegal heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and all other ILLEGAL DRUGS. Not the legally prescribed and medically necessary medications we patients need. We chronic pain disease patients need help, but we are helpless due to the government and government agencies. There is stigma, scrutiny and discrimination against us due to a category of medications we desperately need and benefit from, opioid medications.
    WE ARE PATIENTS NOT ADDICTS! !

  18. Tracy Lacy at 4:07 am

    I bet he got pain meds as should people that are trying to support they’re family going to work

  19. Debbie De Anda at 3:12 am

    The government need to leave opiods alone for chronic pain patients. Until they find another form of pain relief for us people in pain we have to have something for pain. I’m ready to stand before any government officials or whomever I need to to help fight for chronic pain patients.