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Lumbar Disc Implant: October 12, 2012

Millions of Americans are walking around with artificial knees, hips and shoulders. But a less common procedure surgery is giving many people a break from their back pain.

“Over the course of many, many years the discs can slowly breakdown and collapse and ultimately when the discs collapsed to a certain stage you basically have bone on bone rubbing against on each other, very similar to how people have bad arthritis of the hips or the knees,” says Dr. Dean Lin, neurosurgeon with Lee Memorial Health System.

The result is chronic back pain. The first line of treatment is physical therapy, followed by pain management. If that failed, people were left with the option of fusing the spine.

“Spinal fusion is a surgery where we remove the disc material and we basically fuse, or we join two of the adjacent segment vertebrae together,” says Dr. Lin.

Spinal fusion is a solid option, but not always a welcome one. Patients lose flexibility in their back and may face additional pressure on adjacent joints. But a new option is helping people beat back pain.

“Decades ago in orthopedics if you had a bad knee or a bad hip it got fused. That's currently what we do right now in the lumbar spine and it works well. Newer technologies are available to preserve motion in the lumbar and cervical spine and those are disc replacements,” says Dr. Lin. 

Surgery to implant the artificial disc is performed through the front of the body. Doctors remove any disc fragments, then pull apart the spine and put the new joint in place. There are limitations on where it can be used, and who can get an artificial disc implant.

“There are a lot of patients who are interested in the replacement as opposed to fusion. Right now, it's only FDA approved for one level,” says Dr. Lin.

Still it’s a first step in taking on troublesome back pain.