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New Back Operation Relieves Disc Pain

Artificial Disc May Be Answer for Some Disc Problems

by Wpxi.com

Edited: June 1, 2006

Pittsburgh - Twenty five million people suffer from lower back pain caused by degenerative or damaged spinal discs. Many people resort to surgery, which may relieve the pain, but often leaves them unable to bend and move normally.Now a new procedure recently approved by the FDA may relieve the pain and leave the patient with normal function.

Judy Tarzia of Beaver County suffered from back pain for years. It was caused by degenerative disc disease. Something she developed after working as a nurse for years. Two years ago that pain became so severe she couldn't even perform the simplest of tasks. Tarzia said just trying to load the dishwasher was difficult. "You can't bend. If you do you have excruciating pain."

She tried everything to treat her pain, from acupuncture to spinal injections, but nothing worked. Tarzia didn't want surgery because the only operation available for her condition fuses the spine. That may have relieved her pain, but it would have limited her range of motion.

With options running out, this normally optimistic woman was at the end of her rope. “When a person has chronic pain, it affects everything - your whole life, your emotions, everything."

Luckily, that's when Tarzia found out about a new procedure that might help her. She turned to Dr. Jack Wilberger, chairman of neurosurgery at Allegheny General Hospital. At the time he was the only one in the Pittsburgh area performing the operation.

Wilberger said this operation will make a huge difference in treatment of many cases of back pain. “This has been the biggest breakthrough in treatment of spine problems in 10 years,” he said. The breakthrough is an artificial disc that mimics the functions of a normal spinal disc. It is similar to a hip or knee replacement.

“It allows the spine to continue to move in the various directions bending forward and backward side to side,” Wilberger said. Right now the most common operation to treat disc problems involves fusing the spine, which basically locks it together. Once the spine is fused, there is additional stress on the disc above and below where the fusion takes place, so those discs wear can wear out.

Wilberger says surgery to replace the disc is much more involved than any other spine operation. “This is a very major operation. We have to insert ( the artificial disc) through the abdomen, we have to work around all the major vital structures." That means there is a chance of complications. About 5 percent of the men who have this operation have a chance of being left with sexual dysfunction.

Dr. Wilberger says not everyone with back pain and disc problems are candidates for this operation. To be considered for the procedure, patients must have had back pain for at least six months. They must have tried every medical treatment available and are so disabled by the pain that they can't work or function at home.

Once the patient meets those criteria, they go through testing to make sure they will really benefit from this operation. Tarzia met all the requirements. She became the first patient in the Pittsburgh area to receive the artificial disc. She also got her old life back.

"I'm working fulltime. I can do everything; I can do everything I couldn't do,” She said.

So far, Wilberger has performed just three artificial disc operations. Because the artificial disc operation is so new, many insurance companies will not yet pay for the operation.

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