John F. Kennedy – A Life of Back Pain & Hidden Illness

John F Kennedy - Back Pain Sufferer This post is the first in a series about famous and/or note worthy people that suffer from Back Pain. In our ongoing effort to educate America about back pain and help eliminate it, this series was inspired by a story we spotted on Hub Pages you can read here if you like: Presidents Back Pain Cured

John F. Kennedy’s medical records may shed some light on questions of the president’s character. Reviews of his records in recent years revealed that the president suffered from severe back pain and other numerous ailments, taking as many as eight medications a day to manage them. Kennedy, his aides, and his family kept this information hidden from the public in an attempt to project an image as a strong and powerful figure, in much the same way Franklin D. Roosevelt concealed the severity of his paralysis in the 1930s and 40s.

Kennedy’s back pain and other ailments clearly did not stand in the way of his political ambitions. He used his father’s connections to enlist in the Navy and keep his medical condition concealed from military physicians. While serving on Navy boats in the southwest Pacific, he slept with a plywood board under his mattress for back pain relief. During his 1960 presidential campaign, he was followed everywhere by an aide who carried a bag of “medical support.” Kennedy’s medical records remained closed for years following his death, apparently because his family worried they would tarnish his reputation as an honest political figure.

Due to his many ailments, a man of Kennedy’s health would not be able to survive today’s political climate, writes presidential biographer and New York Times political correspondent Richard Reeves. Kennedy suffered from Addison’s disease, a condition in which the adrenal glands produce insufficient hormones and which required increasing amounts of hydrocortisone and testosterone. Sickly since he was a boy, Kennedy was also frequently ill and suffered from severe fatigue and low weight. He became so ill that he was read the last rites three times in his life. Lifelong abdominal discomfort and fatigue may have been due to celiac disease, which is often associated with Addison’s.

What Was The True Source of Kennedy’s Back Pain

Though his back pain was rumored to have been caused by football injuries and war wounds, according to Reeves, however, those stories were untrue. Some reports indicate that Kennedy suffered from a degenerative disease of the lumbar spine, which caused a difference in the length of his legs, requiring him to wear a back brace and use crutches intermittently. Navy records show evidence of osteoporosis. Reporter Robert Dallek writes that steroid treatments Kennedy received for his intestinal ails as a youth may have contributed to both his Addison’s disease and his back problems. In a December 2002 article in the Atlantic Monthly, Dallek writes that in the 1930s and 40s, physicians did not realize the long-term effects of corticosteroids – specifically the suppression of normal adrenal function and the inducement of osteoporosis in the lower back. X-rays from the early 50s show compression fractures in Kennedy’s lower spine.

Kennedy Underwent High Risk Back Pain Surgery

In 1954, while senator of Massachusetts, Kennedy underwent back surgery, which posed extreme risks due to his Addison’s disease, as his hormone treatments suppressed his immune system. According to Reeves, no one with Addison’s disease had ever previously survived traumatic surgery. But Kennedy said his back pain was so severe, he would rather die than live with the pain. His x-rays revealed that his fifth lumbar vertebra had collapsed, and he had become more dependent on his crutches. He survived the surgery, but was hospitalized for nine months afterward due to a urinary-tract infection and a transfusion reaction.

A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1955 indicated he would have been incapacitated without the surgery, which consisted of a lumbo sacra fusion together with a sacroiliac fusion. Doctors hoped the fusions would strengthen his lower spine, but due to a possible infection, another operation had to be performed four months later to remove the metal plate that had been inserted into Kennedy’s spine.

The President Continues to Suffer from Back Pain & Other Ailments

The surgeries brought him no back pain relief. Throughout the 50s, Kennedy continued to suffer from his back pain and other ailments, including abdominal discomfort, high fevers, dehydration, high cholesterol, and difficulty sleeping. He could not bend forward or backward at all. Turning over in bed or sitting in a chair posed extreme difficulty. Kennedy continued to hide his condition from the public and denied reports of his Addison’s disease. During his presidency, he was under the regular care of an allergist, an endocrinologist, a gastroenterologist, an orthopedist, a urologist, and an internist/pharmacologist. He received back injections to make less reliant on his crutches, but his medical advisors feared they may be doing more harm than good and that he would eventually end up in a wheelchair.

Regular exercise therapy with an orthopedic surgeon began to ease his back spasms and increase his mobility, but it is unknown how his health issues would have progressed had he lived longer. Kennedy was killed in 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald. Some believe that his chronic back problems ultimately contributed to his death:  Kennedy was wearing his back brace when he was shot. The first bullet struck him in the neck, and his back brace held him upright and kept him in the path of Oswald’s second, fatal bullet to the head.

John F. KennedyDeception or Exceptional Character?

Though some have criticized Kennedy for deceiving the public in order to advance his political career, Dallek notes that Kennedy refused to complain about his ailments and exhibited an extraordinary strength of will, enduring unspeakable pain and yet refusing to let his physical ailments interfere with his political duties.

References:

PBS.org: John F. Kennedy

“In J.F.K.  File, Hidden Illness, Pain and Pills;” The New York Times

The Health and Medical History of President John Kennedy; Dr. Zebra

“The Medical Ordeals of JFK;” The Atlantic Monthly, December 2002

Karen Eisenbraun is a writer, editor, and Internet marketing professional specializing in the areas of health and wellness. Her writing has appeared on a number of top health websites, including Livestong.com, and she is the Kansas City Yoga Examiner for Examiner.com. Visit her web site at www.kareneisenbraun.com.

is the founder and CEO of Vacupractor.