Research Paper Reviews JFK's Chronic Health Issues


President John F. Kennedy was plagued by health issues throughout his life. His brother Robert F. Kennedy once recalled, "when we were growing up together we used to laugh about the great risk a mosquito took in biting Jack – with some of his blood the mosquito was almost sure to die." 

A new review published in the Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine details the health issues that troubled JFK the most, specifically his back. His low-back pain was instigated by a football injury sustained while he was at Harvard in 1937. An orthopedic spine specialist diagnosed him in 1940 with a "very unstable lumbosacral joint". His back issues stopped him from joining the Army as he had wished, and he initially failed a physical examination for the Navy Officer Candidate School, before ultimately being commissioned as an ensign in the US Naval Reserve in 1941.

A collision with a Japanese destroyer in 1943 that killed two crew members further injured Kennedy's back. An orthopedist summarized Kennedy's conditions as “confined … to the region of the left sacroiliac with pain in the posterior part of the left hip down as far as the knee." He had a left L4-5 laminotomy and L5-S1 discectomy performed, but suffered severe muscle spasms on an attempt to walk.

His back troubles increased when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946. In an effort to treat his long-standing gastrointestinal disease, Kennedy began taking corticosteroids in the late 1930s or early 1940s, say the authors. He abruptly stopped taking the steroids which precipitated a severe adrenal crisis in 1947. Kennedy became severely ill, requiring hospitalization in London, and was eventually diagnosed with Addison's disease. 

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In 1954 he had lumbosacral fusion operation, with implantation of a Wilson plate. His postoperative course was described as “satisfactory in that no Addisonian crisis developed”. He had “minor complications, consisting of a urinary tract infection on the third postoperative day, a transfusion reaction … and a mild wound infection despite antibiotic therapy.” He had his fourth and final back surgery on September 13, 1957, after he was diagnosed with with a superficial lumbar abscess.

The authors concluded that, "Despite the chronic pain and sometimes less than admirable measures used in the treatment of the pain, Kennedy repeatedly demonstrated a commendable inclination toward stoicism and bravery highlighted most famously in the PT-109 incident ... His exploits not only in the Pacific but generally, in living a life of extraordinary achievement in the face of chronic pain, speak to the power of tenacity and the resilience innate to his character."

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