Experimental artificial disc relieves lower back pain

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A technology still considered experimental in the United States is now being used to treat lower back pain. Unlike some alternatives, it can preserve a full range of motion.

Tim Goodson is a man who likes to move fast.

"Motorcycles, and hotrods, racing," he glowingly lists as his favorite pastimes.

But earlier this year, severe back pain left him worried about just moving at all.

"Well. I remember praying to be able to walk," Goodson remembers. "I could make it about five steps."

San Francisco spine surgeon Dr. Kenneth Light diagnosed a deteriorating disc in Goodson's lower back.

For decades the most common solution has been to fuse the surrounding vertebrae together.

While it does ease the pain, Light says the fusions also limit natural movement, and can move the problem up or down the spine.

"It creates a stress riser, or a point of stress, where the fused part of the body attaches to the mobile part of the body," Light explains.

Instead Light recommended an emerging technology called a disc replacement.

Rather than fusing the surrounding disc, a surgeon essentially caps the two surfaces with a metal plate. A high-strength, polyethylene disc then slides between the two, acting as a replacement disc and allowing the spine to twist and flex.

But while disc replacements have been approved in Europe for years, they're still considered experimental in the U.S. And it can sometimes take months of negotiations with an insurer to convince them to cover the procedure.

Goodson's case was also complicated because it involved the lower back, which absorbs more stress than upper parts of the spine and neck.

Still Light says advances in materials have made the disc replacements strong enough to handle the force.

"It's made out of the same material as a total hip," Light says. "And those materials resist compression very well ."

To reach the area, Light actually performed the surgery from the front, delicately moving past the organs to remove the existing disc and extra bone to ultimately slip the caps and replacement disc into place.
Without complications, he says some patients can return home in a matter of two or three days.

And while full recovery can take several months, Goodson says he's regained enough strength to do the things he enjoys most.

"I can lift weights, ride a motorcycle," Goodson. "I walk, as a matter of fact, every morning. I get up and walk five miles every morning."

And free of pain, the man who once worried about walking is now planning a ride with his wife, along the California coast.

Written and produced by Tim Didion
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