A Revolutionary Solution

The human head, weighing as much as 15 pounds, is perched on a section of the spine made up of seven small bones – the cervical vertebrae, numbered C1 to C7. Small shock-absorbing discs or cushions with soft, gelatin-like centers separate the vertebrae. With an amazing ability to move forward and backward, side-to-side, and tilt right and left, this part of the spine is subject to many types of injury and degenerative diseases.

For that Pain in the Neck

By Barbara Bowen

Ben Crox was the unsuspecting victim of a rear-end collision in September 2006. He was 28 years old, married with three young children, and felt thankful that he had no apparent injuries.

“A couple of days after the accident, the stiffness started in my neck, and over the next few weeks I began having intermittent pain and eventually constant pain in my neck and then my shoulder,” Ben remembers. “I had to rest my hand on top of my head to relieve the pain and reduce the pins and needles feeling in my arm and fingers.”

An MRI revealed Ben had a herniated disc, which means the cushioning pad between the cervical discs had been pushed outside its normal position and was pressing against the spinal nerves as Ben moved his head. As months passed and the pain got worse, Ben looked for a long term solution.

Revolutionary Cervical Disc Replacement

One orthopedic surgeon recommended cervical disc fusion, which would involve locking two or more of the vertebrae together to eliminate the pain. Ben sought a second opinion about a revolutionary new procedure using artificial cervical disc implants, an alternative to cervical spine fusion offering preservation of motion and flexibility in the neck.

Spinal disc implant for cervical joint replacement was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in July of 2007. The single-level artificial cervical disc exceeded expectations during clinical trials in the United States and has quickly become a gold standard for immediate relief of neck pain caused by damaged cervical discs.

Ben had surgery at 10 o’clock in the morning at Memorial Hospital. He was in a room by one o’clock and returned home the next day. He was back to work in a week under restrictions to avoid lifting anything heavier than a gallon of milk for six weeks. “When I woke up after the surgery, there was immediate pain relief,” Ben recalls. “I felt like a brand new person.”

History of the Cervical Disc Implant

In the early 90s the first attempts to develop a prototype for the cervical disc implant were started in England. By 1996 clinical trials were underway with a modified version of the first model described in the Journal of Neurosurgery.

“Many of the surgeries done then had good results and are still working for people,” noted Dr. Craig Humphreys a spine specialist at Memorial Hospital’s Spine Center. “Over the past decade, spine specialists have been working on improvements, and the version approved by the FDA for us to use now is the fourth generation.”

Candidates for Cervical Disc Implants

Patients who are experiencing neck pain and stiffness along with arm pain, numbness, and tingling, and have not found relief with medication or other therapies may be considered for cervical disc implant surgery. These symptoms are indications of damaged discs. As people age, the discs become more rigid and more vulnerable to injury, a condition known as degenerative disc disease. Generally these patients and those affected with severe arthritis or spinal cord stenosis are not candidates for the new implant device.

A Bucket of Water Tips the Scales

Denise Hicks-Wiegand moved to Chattanooga in 2006 to help care for her father who is ill with congestive heart failure and severe diabetes. “I had neck pain for many years and just figured nothing could be done. I learned to live with the pain,” Denise says. “When it worked its way down my arm, I decided to see a spine doctor.”

An X-ray of her neck showed a herniated disc was putting pressure on her spinal cord and nerve roots. She too was told that she would be a candidate for the new cervical disc implant. The surgery, called a discectomy, would involve removing all or part of the deteriorating disc and then implanting the artificial disc.

“I wasn’t quite ready for surgery,” Denise recalls. “My doctor told me that when I couldn’t pick up something like a coffee cup, I should come back to see him, because that’s when I would be ready for surgery.”

“I was lifting a gallon bucket of water for my dogs one day, and I dropped it because my arm hurt so bad,” Denise said. “A sudden jolt of pain shot from my shoulder to my fingers, like lightning bolts. My arm tingled for half an hour.”

After surgery, the neck pain was immediately gone, and the arm was fully functional and pain free. Denise says, “I will be totally back to normal when I can take my dogs for a walk and don’t have to worry about pain and further injury to my neck.”

Barbara Bowen is a graduate of Middle Tennessee State University where she earned a BS in Mass Communications. She is a Marketing Manager at Memorial North Park Hospital and is currently a board member for Partnership for Families, Children and Adults. Barbara is married to Bill Bowen, retired Executive Director of the Foundation for the Alexian Brothers of the Southeast. They reside in East Brainerd.