When Is It Time to Consider Artificial Disc Replacement?

Dr. Constantine Toumbis

01 December 2020

If you are one of the many Americans suffering with chronic back pain due to degenerative disc disease or a herniated disc, you may have started exploring surgical options. Surgery is often a next step when conservative or minimally-invasive treatment methods, like steroid injections or physical therapy, do not offer pain relief. One of these surgeries, typically recommended for those with degenerative disc disease or a herniated disc, is artificial disc replacement.

An artificial disc replacement is a procedure that uses an anterior technique to replace a damaged disc that is causing back pain with a new, artificial disc. As with any surgery, an artificial disc replacement is a big decision. Here, we will review the signs that may indicate a need for artificial disc replacement, as well as alternatives to artificial disc replacement and what you should know when considering this procedure.

Signs That You May Need a Disc Replacement

If you can relate to any of the signs below, artificial disc replacement may be the best decision to help you find back pain relief. Consult a back pain specialist if you are experiencing any of these symptoms to discover the right plan of action for you.

You Have Radiating Pain That Travels Through Your Limbs

If you’re experiencing pain that travels through your arms or legs, then that’s an indication that you may have a pinched nerve. Pinched nerves can be caused by a herniated or compressed cervical disc. If you are experiencing this type of pain and have not yet been diagnosed by a physician, make sure to seek medical care from a back pain specialist to figure out the root cause of your pain. 

Depending on your diagnosis, your physician may recommend trying a course of conservative treatment methods to see if your pain can be managed without the big decision of surgery. However, in some cases where the discs are severely weakened, conservative methods may not be the solution. 

Conservative Pain Treatments Aren’t Helping

If you’ve already tried a method of conservative pain management, like epidural steroid injections, back braces, painkillers or physical therapy, and are still suffering with back pain, then surgery may be your next option. Visit your back pain specialist and have an open conversation about the level of pain you experienced before trying a conservative treatment, and what the level of pain looked like throughout the duration of treatment. Sometimes, there may be another non-invasive or minimally-invasive treatment that can help before you move on to discussing surgery. But, if you’ve already exhausted a few different types of conservative treatments, your back pain specialist may recommend a procedure like artificial disc replacement.

You Have Degenerative Disc Disease

If you have already been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and the pain associated with it has escalated, or is no longer managed by your previously prescribed treatment, then you may want to consider artificial disc replacement. Degenerative disc disease is a very common cause for patients requiring an artificial disc replacement. Sometimes, discs become weakened to a state where it makes the most sense to completely replace the disc.

You’ve Been Diagnosed With a Herniated Disc

Not all herniated disc cases are alike. While some instances of a herniated disc can be resolved with adequate rest, anti-inflammatories, and physical therapy, there are other more severe cases where the patient will need greater intervention. In those scenarios, artificial disc replacement may be recommended. 

Artificial Disc Replacement Versus Spinal Fusion

If a patient is in need of an artificial disc replacement, it’s likely that a spinal fusion procedure is another option to consider. A spinal fusion is a procedure where an orthopedic surgeon removes the damaged or weakened disc and inserts a spacer with bone graft in its place, with the goal of fusing together disc spines. A downside to this procedure can be a loss of mobility since two vertebrae become fused together.

Because of this reason, many patients who are younger or live active lifestyles prefer artificial disc replacement over spinal fusion, since they are able to retain greater mobility with a disc replacement. The healing time also tends to be less complex, since there is no waiting period for bones to properly fuse together and heal. By comparison, artificial disc replacements typically take six to eight weeks after surgery to heal, while spinal fusions can take up to three months.

How a Disc Replacement Procedure Works

Before the Surgery

Once you and your orthopedic specialist have determined that artificial disc replacement is the best option for you, your doctor will have a list of recommendations for you to get ready for the procedure, along with questions about your medical background and overall health. 

For example, a physician will need to know of any prescription and over-the-counter medications you are currently taking, as certain medications can have an affect on the body’s ability to heal or blood clotting, which is imperative to surgery. Depending on what medications you’re taking and its effects, you may be asked to temporarily pause taking them or taking an alternative medication. 

In addition, your doctor should be able to discuss recovery after the surgery so that you can begin making arrangements ahead of time when it comes to activities like driving, bathing, cleaning and shopping.

During the Surgery

Patients undergoing an artificial disc replacement surgery will be administered anesthetics to be put under a deep sleep during the procedure. At the start of the procedure, a surgeon will make an incision for access to the patient’s spine. From there, the surgeon will remove the damaged disc and insert a new artificial disc in its place. Then, everything is set back in place and the incision is closed up. 

Post Surgery

In some cases, you may need to stay at the hospital for a day or two following the surgery and take pain medication to help you through the healing process. You may also be shown how to move properly with caution after surgery and gentle stretches to aid in recovery.

Contact Citrus Spine to See If Disc Replacement Is Right for You

If you are considering an artificial disc replacement, contact the experts at Citrus Spine today. Our board-certified healthcare providers will listen to your concerns and review all treatment options with you to create a plan suited to your needs.

Remember, if you are experiencing back pain symptoms, you should never ignore or try to suffer through the pain. Always consult your doctor and have open conversations. If you are not satisfied with your doctor or require specialized care, it is recommended to get a second opinion from a back pain specialist.

Dr. Constantine Toumbis

Dr. Toumbis is a board certified, fellowship trained orthopedic surgeon specializing in cervical, thoracic and lumbar surgery. He received his undergraduate degree in Biology from New York University in 1987, then continued on to receive his Masters in Natural Sciences as well as a PhD in Experimental Pathology from State University of New York at Buffalo. He completed his medical degree at Wayne State University School of Medicine with a distinction in Biomedical Research. After moving to Florida to complete his internship and residency in orthopedics at the University of Florida Shands Hospital, he went on to pursue a fellowship at Cleveland Clinic's Florida Spine Institute. He moved to Citrus County and has been in private practice since 2005.

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