Artificial Disc Replacement Surgery

When chronic, painful spine disorders–especially those involving degenerative disc disease–do not respond well to non-surgical treatments such as anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and injections, surgery may be considered. Traditionally, spinal fusion surgery was performed. However, new techniques and materials have made artificial disc replacement surgery an alternative surgery that is growing in popularity.

What is an artificial disc?

An artificial disc (also called a disc prosthesis or spine arthroplasty device) is a manmade device surgically placed into the spine between replicate the functions of a normal intervertebral disc.

There are two artificial discs replacement options:

  1. Total disc replacement: All or most of the disc tissue is replaced with artificial materials.
  2. Disc nucleus replacement: Only the soft, jelly like material in the center of the disc is removed and replaced.

An artificial disc is normally made of metal or plastic-like materials.

When is an artificial disc replacement used?

Artificial disc replacement surgery most likely is used to treat the following:

  • Degenerative disc disease: Degenerative disc disease occurs when intervertebral discs (the soft, gel-like cushions between the vertebrae that absorb pressure and help keep the bones of the vertebrae from rubbing against each other) lose flexibility, elasticity and shock-absorbing characteristics. The tough outside covering of the disc can become more easily torn, and the soft center of the disc starts to dry out and shrink.
  • Post-discectomy syndrome: This problem sometimes occurs when pain continues following a previous surgery to remove a herniated disc (sometimes called a slipped or ruptured disk).
  • Traumatic injury to the vertebrae.

Not everyone is a candidate for artificial disc replacement. Those who generally do not do well with an artificial disc include people whose bones are not strong due to aging, osteoporosis or other bone diseases, and people with a history of slippage of one vertebra on another. There are other conditions that may prevent use of an artificial disc. A surgeon will thoroughly evaluate potential candidates and discuss possible complications and risks.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of artificial disc replacement surgery?

Using an artificial disc instead of spinal fusion can offer several advantages, including:

  • Better long-term motion and flexibility following surgery.
  • Reduced degenerative damage to the discs above and below the fused area.
  • Quicker recovery time following surgery.

What happens during and after disc replacement surgery?

Unlike traditional lower back spine surgeries, most lower back disc replacement surgery in done through an incision in the abdomen. After making the incision, the surgeon removes the damaged disc and puts in the new, artificial disc.

Recovery after surgery is similar to other surgeries involving the spine. Most patients spend several days in the hospital followed by out-patient physical therapy sessions during which patients rebuild strength and functioning in the back.