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Exploring the Alternatives to Spinal Fusion Surgery with Artificial Disc Replacement

Spinal health care is constantly advancing and changing with more treatment options for patients. The downside is that this may cause confusion and anxiety for the patient on which options are best for their condition. Artificial disc replacement has emerged as an alternative to spinal fusion for many patients with painful discs.  Artificial disc replacement is a procedure that involves replacing a disc that is causing chronic neck or back pain with an artificial disc that provides relief without compromising the spine’s natural anatomical structure.


An artificial disc replacement procedure replaces a diseased or damaged spinal disc with a specialized implant that works to preserve motion in the spine. An artificial disc is a device that is implanted into the spine to emulate the functions of a normal disc. There are two general types of artificial discs: total disc replacement and disc nucleus replacement. Total disc replacement, takes the place of the removed disc tissue and is implanted into the space between the vertebra. As the name implies, with a disc nucleus replacement, only the center of the disc (nucleus) is replaced.


Artificial disc replacement was first approved in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2007 and since that time continued advances have led to increased access and care for patients. Artificial disc replacement cannot be used for all disc and spine problems. If you suffer from severe discogenic problems it is important to talk to your doctor to determine if a total disc replacement is a good option to successfully treat your neck or back pain. There are several conditions that may prevent you from receiving a disc replacement. These include spondylolisthesis, osteoporosis, vertebral body fracture, allergy to the artificial materials, spinal tumor, spinal infection, morbid obesity, significant changes of the facet joints, pregnancy, chronic steroid use or autoimmune problems. As with any surgery, there are risks associated with disc replacement. Discuss these risks with your surgeon before deciding to have an artificial disc implanted.


An artificial disc replacement procedure can relieve the pain of pinched nerves in the spine. The diseased disc is removed from between the vertebra. The surfaces of the vertebral bodies are cleared of all damaged disc tissue and are shaped to accept the implant. The artificial disc is inserted into the space between the vertebrae and carefully secured into place with specialized screws. The implant is designed to preserve spinal motion and keep the spine properly aligned.


Implantation of artificial discs offers a reversible option to a fusion. With artificial disc replacement, damage to nearby discs and joints is greatly reduced than with spinal fusion. Artificial disc replacement allows for motion preservation and near normal distribution of stress along the spine and restoration of pre-degenerative disc height. The use of a disc replacement is an exciting alternative compared to fusion in that it maintains motion at the level of the spine undergoing surgery.


For some conditions patients who have been treated with artificial disc replacement have been noted to have a faster recovery than those who underwent spinal fusion and studies are currently being performed to evaluate the long-term benefits, particularly as they relate to maintaining motion and preserving the other discs in the surrounding area. There is less pain from the procedure and fewer complications in general. The materials used in artificial disc replacements are similar the materials used in routine hip and knee replacement surgery.

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