Degenerative disc disease, which is an umbrella term for chronic pain and discomfort caused by the degeneration of a spinal disc, can be treated through conservative, or non-surgical, methods for most patients. Unfortunately, there are patients with the condition who will undergo conservative treatment for months without seeing any improvement in their condition. For these patients, doctors and specialists may suggest either spinal fusion or artificial disc replacement surgery, according to Spine Health.
Spinal fusion, which is the process of fusing together vertebrae to allow the vertebrae to heal as one bone, is the most common surgical procedure for degenerative disc disease. The surgery is recommended for patients who have pain and trouble with motion. First, a specialist might use a variety of tests, such as x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging scans and others to determine if spinal fusion surgery is the best option for the patient. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the “theory is that if painful vertebrae do not move, they should not hurt.”
There are many different techniques and approaches to fusing the spinal vertebrae together. For instance, the surgeon can approach the spine from the front, the back or the sides of the patient. The surgeon might also take a minimal approach by making smaller incisions on the patient. Although the process is widespread as a surgical option for patients suffering from degenerative disc disease, potential risks include infection, blood clots, nerve damage, and pain, among others.
As a newer technique for relieving pain caused by degenerative disc disease, artificial disc replacement might help patients who had received fusion surgery but did not experience a decrease in pain after the fusion healed. For this procedure, a surgeon replaces the damaged intervertebral disc with a mechanical device. The discs are unique to the patient, and are made from metal or a combination of metal and plastic. According to the AAOS, the “materials used include medical grade plastic (polyethylene) and medical grade cobalt chromium or titanium alloy.”
Before receiving artificial disc replacement, the patient will have to undergo a series of tests similar to the tests done before fusion surgery to determine if the patient is a good candidate for an artificial disc. If surgery is performed, an incision will be made and the surgeon might move organs to access the spine and avoid nerves. The surgeries usually take approximately two to three hours. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons states that artificial disc technology may lead to more mobility and less stress on other discs for a patient than if the patient had received spinal fusion surgery. Artificial disc replacement has only been approved by the Food & Drug Administration since 2004, so the procedure will be perfected as time goes on.