Artificial disc offers relief from back pain

Canadians with severe back pain caused by disc degeneration have a new surgical option: an artificial disc.

Discs in the lower back serve as a cushion and separate vertebrae, but as we age discs can degenerate and compress, causing bone to rub against bone.

Traditionally, surgeons have fused together the vertebrae surrounding a degenerated disc. "It is quite effective in the right situation in eliminating the pain," said orthopedic spine surgeon Dr. Kevin Gurr. "But you pay the price in losing motion."

Instead, Gurr suggested and tried using an alternative. In April, Gurr and his surgical team implanted an artificial spinal disc into Mary Doyle's back. The 47-year-old bank employee says she now has her life back.

"I can do anything I want to," Doyle said. " We just went camping, swimming, hiking. So I can do all that again."

Gurr said the procedure used on Doyle is as significant a development as the artificial hip and knee replacements of 30 years ago. But Gurr and other orthopedic surgeons warn the artificial disc isn't for all back patients.

Dr. Michael Ford of Toronto's Sunnybrook & Women's College Health Sciences Centre's orthopedic clinic says the operation seems to be successful in people who have problems with one disc.

Replacement disc not for everyone

"We know that with time those changes can march upwards and you can start having wear and tear changes on the next disc," said Ford.

If the degeneration does move up then the relief from the replacement may be short-lived.

The replacement surgery has been performed in Europe for about 10 years. The procedure is being studied in the United States.

In Canada, the surgery has already been approved. Gurr and his team have completed five more disc replacements since Doyle's operation.

Her doctors expect the technique will be picked up by surgeons across the country within a year.