Artificial disc replacement is a growing alternative to traditional spinal fusion
Since the mid-1900s, spinal fusion has been used to treat chronic neck pain that requires surgical intervention. Stabilizing the spine by permanently fusing two or more vertebrae together can be highly effective in relieving pain, but even this common procedure has its limitations. That’s why neurosurgeons are increasingly moving toward artificial disc replacement surgery – a more advanced approach that offers patients additional short- and long-term benefits – to treat the cervical spine (neck).
Altair Health Neurosurgeon Dr. Scott A. Meyer, who is leading the way in spine health, recently spoke with NJ Advance Media about how artificial disc replacement surgery is redefining cervical spine surgery.
Q: What’s the difference between cervical artificial disc replacement and spinal fusion surgery?
Cervical artificial disc replacement and spinal fusion are two completely different approaches to spine surgery. With spinal fusion, the traditional approach, a damaged intervertebral disc is removed and the vertebrae are fused together using bone grafts, metal plates and screws. This creates one solid structure, eliminating any abnormal movement between the vertebrae. Alternatively, with artificial disc replacement, the damaged disc is replaced with a prosthetic disc, enabling the spine to function like normal.
Q: What benefits does cervical artificial disc replacement surgery offer that spinal fusion does not?
Research shows cervical disc replacement patients have similar levels of pain relief compared to patients who had spinal fusion, but disc replacement surgery provides several additional potential benefits.
These include faster recovery compared to the healing time that bone grafts require; increased range of motion, which becomes limited when vertebrae are welded together using spinal fusion; and the decreased need for reoperation. With spinal fusion, a subsequent procedure may be necessary since the discs above or below the originally affected area tend to break down more rapidly.
Q: Who is a candidate for cervical artificial disc replacement surgery?
To begin with, spine surgery isn’t right for everyone. There are several nonsurgical options for treating back and neck pain – for example, pain management and physical therapy. Many patients will improve with conservative measures and not ultimately require surgery. However, if pain is persistent, surgery may be necessary.
Patients with herniated discs, damaged discs and degenerative disc disease are generally good candidates for either artificial disc replacement surgery or spinal fusion in the cervical spine. However, patient selection in cervical disc replacement is important, with less advanced degeneration being optimal for cervical artificial discs. A neurosurgeon who has extensive experience with cervical disc replacement – such as our spine specialists at Altair Health – can help determine the best course of action on an individual basis.
Q: What does recovery entail?
Both artificial disc replacement surgery and spinal fusion can be done in a minimally invasive manner, meaning smaller incisions, less physical trauma and faster recovery compared to open surgery. Still, disc replacement patients typically return to their normal daily activities weeks faster than spinal fusion patients – and with a full range of motion, as mentioned earlier – as they don’t need to wait for bone grafts to heal.
Q: Do all neurosurgeons do disc replacements and spinal fusion?
Spinal fusion is a common procedure for neurosurgeons, but finding a neurosurgeon who specializes in artificial disc replacement surgery may not be that easy. Patients must do their due diligence to find a neurosurgeon – or get a second opinion – that will help them determine their best path to becoming pain free.
For more information on advanced spine surgery and spine health, visit our spine and wellness section.