New technology seeks to ease back pain

September 29, 2011 7:54:14 PM PDT
Back pain is one of the most common medical conditions affecting eight out of 10 people at some point in our lives.

Bay Area surgeons are now turning to a new technology to help correct a painful and debilitating back problem, and it's becoming more prevalent among baby boomers.

Truck driver Tim Taylor is recovering from a back problem so severe, he said it was ruining his life.

"I couldn't stand up straight because it was too painful to do it," Taylor said.

Taylor was suffering from spinal stenosis, a degenerative condition that strikes most often in people over the age of 50. The condition is taking an increasing toll on baby boomers.

"It's definitely an orthopedic epidemic," said back surgeon Kenneth Light, MD. "Within the next 10 years, the number of these problems is going to increase."

Light says the condition is triggered by a narrowing in the spinal canal. That narrowing is often caused by arthritis like bone spurts that form on the vertebrae, compressing the surrounding nerves.

Light says correcting severe cases like Taylor's can involve a combination of delicate procedures.

"Even when I saw (Taylor), nerves were compromised to such a point (that) I thought he might be damaged during surgery," Light said.

But Light says improved technology is making it possible to safely reshape the spine with far better results. The warning system uses electrodes to locate neural pathways and sounds an alarm if a surgeon gets too close to a nerve.

"The hardware is better, we have stronger instruments that take up less room," Light said. "It allows us to manipulate the spine in ways we couldn't before."

In Taylor's case, Dr. Light's team had to first separate the individual vertebrae with a system of spacers that's been refined in recent years. He was then able to remove the bone spurs and widen the spinal canal itself.

Finally, screws were placed to fuse the vertebrae to a post-like device for support.

"After we do that, the nerves miraculously have increased blood flow because they're not pinched off," said Light. "And little by little, the nerves heal and the patient is able to walk again."

It took nearly a year for Taylor's back to heal completely, and while he has yet to return to his passions of hunting and fishing, he says he's feeling stronger week by week.

"I'm not walking in pain anymore," Taylor said, "and I can get out in the yard and do gardening."

Light says that the fusion isn't necessary in many cases, and that the newer procedure removes less bone, increasing the odds that the spinal column will remain stable after surgery.


Load Comments