Constructing a Better Back For Those With Degenerative Disc Disease

2009-02-27 | |
Last updated: 2009-02-27

For patients with degenerative disc disease, an irreversible wearing down of spinal discs in the lower back and neck area, pain and restriction of activity are common experiences. Anti-inflammatory drugs and exercise programs that improve strength and blood flow help slow the rate of deterioration of the discs, but the degradation will still proceed over time. A reduction in quality of life is somewhat inevitable.

In the more advanced stages when the pain is beyond acceptable levels or when numbness and muscle weakness are experienced, the next possible treatment involves surgery. One option involves a discectomy to remove the disc while another option is fusion surgery to join the two vertebrae above and below the disc. The third option, which is relatively new, involves disc replacement.

Of the options, fusion surgery has the longest recovery time with up to a year of healing required and limited physical activity for the duration. Additionally, once healed, the range of motion of a fused spine is reduced relative to a normal spine. However, the key benefit of the fusion approach is the elimination of pain.

Disc replacement, an ideal solution in cases without complexities or other spinal problems, has been possible for almost 20 years in Europe and 5 years in the US with the artificial discs having become more commonly used as a treatment option.

The next advancement in disc research now seems to be the creation of replacement discs from a patient’s own cells. By creating a scaffold structure in the shape of a disc and populating it with disc cells in a specialized incubator, the surgeon and biomedical engineering duo involved in the research were able to “grow” a new disc. The discs, created for rats, could then be implanted into the rodents. Like something out of many a science fiction movie, these researchers envision a sort of spare parts factory to provide people with replacements should their discs wear out.

Should the use of cultivated discs become a possibility, the question arises as to whether artificial discs or cultivated discs will prove to be a better solution. Unlike fusion surgery, pioneered in the 1940s, disc replacement is in its infancy. Will we find the lifespan of artificial discs too short for the lifespan of people or will a cultivated disc degenerate once placed in the body because the causes for degeneration have not been resolved? Can we create a disc better than that created by evolutionary processes?

Ultimately at this point, these competing options present an interesting contest to follow with the real winners being those who who are able to avoid debilitating back pain.

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Category: Disease Information, Medical Research

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