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Disc replacement surgery

Many people who have chronic pain and other symptoms associated with a damaged disc in the spine think that spinal fusion surgery is the only surgical option, but if you qualify disc replacement surgery may be an alternative.

Rather than fusing the vertebrae above and below the problem disc, disc replacement surgery removes the damaged disc and replaces it with an implant. Unlike spinal fusion, disc replacement surgery preserves motion in your spine at the point of the damaged disc.


Who can get disc replacement surgery?

Disc replacement surgery is a major surgery, so it is not the first treatment option for an injured disc. More conservative measures that manage pain and help the disc to rehydrate and heal (i.e. medications, injections, physical therapy and/or chiropractic care) should be tried first.

If your pain and symptoms aren’t relieved with non-surgical measures, and if you meet the criteria, disc replacement surgery might be a good option for you.

Disc replacement surgery is not recommended if you:

  • have spondylolisthesis (slipping of one vertebra over another)
  • have osteoporosis
  • have a vertebral body fracture
  • have a spinal tumor or infection
  • are morbidly obese
  • have significant facet joint damage
  • have autoimmune problems
  • have had certain previous back or abdominal surgeries


What happens during disc replacement surgery?


Disc replacement surgery is done anteriorly, meaning you’ll be lying on your back and an incision is made in your abdomen for lumbar disc replacement or the front of your neck for cervical disc replacement. Next, the damaged disc is removed and replaced with an artificial disc made of two pieces of metal separated by a biopolymer that mimics the shock-absorbing qualities of the natural disc. You’ll be under general anesthesia for the procedure.


Benefits of disc replacement surgery

For many people, disc replacement surgery is preferable to fusion surgery because replacing the disc preserves the mobility of the spine at the affected site and avoids the need for bone grafts. Patients need to remain immobilized for a much shorter time (one week as opposed to four to six with fusion surgery). Research also suggests that the increased mobility in the vertebrae around the disc implant may protect those vertebrae from further degeneration.