Perhaps the most anticipated advance in spine surgery over the past 20 years was the arrival of the artificial disc. The first artificial disc in the United States received formal approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for widespread use in the United States on October 26, 2004. While this technology is somewhat new to the U.S., artificial discs have been in use in Europe for more than 15 years.
It is important to remember that this technology is still evolving with new implants continually in development. Your spine surgeon is the best resource to discuss if it is appropriate for you, and what model of artificial disc is best suited for your case.
An Alternative to Fusion Surgery
The artificial disc concept is intended to be an alternative for spinal fusion surgery. Each year in the U.S., more than 200,000 spinal fusion surgeries are performed to relieve excruciating pain caused by damaged discs in the low back and neck areas.
During a fusion procedure, the damaged disc is typically replaced with bone from a patient’s hip or from a bone bank. Fusion surgery causes two vertebrae to become locked in place, putting additional stress on discs above and below the fusion site, which restricts movement and can lead to further disc herniation with the discs above and below the degenerated disc. An artificial disc replacement is intended to duplicate the function level of a normal, healthy disc and retain motion in the spine.
When a natural disc herniates or becomes badly degenerated, it loses its shock-absorbing ability, which can narrow the space between vertebrae. In fusion surgery, the damaged disc isn’t repaired but rather is removed and replaced with bone that restores the space between the vertebrae. However, this bone locks the vertebrae into place, which can then damage other discs above and below.
A common aspect of all artificial discs is that they are designed to retain the natural movement in the spine by duplicating the rotational function of the discs Mother Nature gave us at birth. Most artificial disc designs have plates that attach to the vertebrae and a rotational component that fits between these fixation plates. These components are typically designed to withstand stress and rotational forces over long periods of time. Still, like any manmade material, they can be affected by wear and tear.
Some of the main benefits of the artificial disc parallel that of knee replacement and hip replacement. This can include the following benefits:
- An artificial disc in the neck or back, in principle, is designed to retain motion in that particular segment of the spine.
- It prevents degeneration of disc levels above and below the affected disc
- There is no bone graft required
- There can be a quicker recovery and return to work or activity
- It can be a less invasive and less painful surgery than a fusion
- There can be less blood loss during surgery