In short, disc replacement offers some clear advantages over spinal fusion, but not everyone is a candidate for disc replacement. In some cases, spinal fusion surgery may still be your best option.
Disc replacement is surgery in which a damaged disc is removed and replaced with an artificial disc. Spinal fusion links, or fuses, vertebrae (small bones in the spine), so they heal into a single, solid bone. As with any surgery, the choice between disc replacement versus spine surgery should be made carefully and in consultation with an experienced surgeon.
For both types, doctors usually don’t recommend surgery unless conservative, nonsurgical measures (such as rest, physical therapy and medications) have failed to deliver relief.
Disc Replacement Surgery
In disc replacement surgery, a damaged disc is removed and replaced with an artificial disc. You may also see this procedure referred to as “artificial disc replacement surgery” (ADR surgery), “total disc arthroplasty,” or “total disc replacement” (TDR), or simply “disc replacement.” Disc replacement may be performed in the lumbar spine (lower back) or cervical spine (neck area).
“Disc replacement is typically a good option for patients diagnosed with herniated disc, spinal stenosis or another form of degenerative disc disease,” according to Scott Blumenthal, M.D., a spine surgeon on the medical staff of Texas Health Center for Diagnostics and Surgery and co-director of the hospital’s Center for Disc Replacement. “Some patients with leg or arm pain may also get good results with disc replacement.”
A key advantage of disc replacement surgery is that it is “motion preserving.” Because there’s no fusing of bones, the patient does not lose range of motion in the spine.
“With disc replacement, you have a far lower chance of needing more spine surgery in the future, compared to spinal fusion surgery,” said Dr. Blumenthal.
How Invasive Is Disc Replacement Surgery?
Cervical disc replacement is performed with a 1-2 inch incision in the front of the neck, while lumbar disc replacement is performed with a 3-4 inch incision in the abdomen. The procedure is performed under general anesthesia and usually takes one to two hours. Disc replacement surgery usually has a faster recovery period compared to fusion. Most patients are up and walking shortly after surgery and released from the hospital within one or two days. Studies suggest that patients return to work significantly faster than with fusion surgery.
How Long Can Disc Replacement Surgery Last?
“I get that question all the time, and the answer is, the disc lasts longer the patient,” Dr. Blumenthal said. “In fact, the younger you are, the better disc replacement surgery is for you, because the chance of needing more surgery after a spinal fusion goes up as you get older. If you had a fusion at age 35, likely you’d need another spine surgery by age 60. Whereas, that’s not the case with disc replacement.”
Dr. Blumenthal speaks from 22 years of experience—he was the 1st to perform a total disc replacement in the United States as part of an FDA trial.
Spine Fusion vs Disc Replacement
In simple terms, spinal fusion surgery links, or fuses, painful or unstable vertebrae (small bones in the spine), so they heal into a single, solid bone. Spinal fusion may be performed in any area of the spine; most commonly, it’s done in the cervical (neck) spine or lumbar (low back) area of the spine.
Surgeons typically recommend spinal fusion surgery when motion or instability is the source of pain. This pain may be due to degenerative disc disease, arthritis, trauma or a fracture, or conditions such as scoliosis or spondylolisthesis. By limiting the motion of painful vertebrae, fusion surgery reduces or eliminates pain. That’s also a key disadvantage of spinal fusion: it limits range of motion, placing additional stress on adjacent vertebrae. This sometimes leads to a need for additional surgery in the future.
If you remember a parent or loved one who underwent spinal fusion decades ago, know you will likely have a very different experience. Recent advances in surgical techniques minimize the operative time, blood loss, and length of the hospital stay.
Keep in mind, while disc replacement offers some advantages over fusion, it’s not right for everybody. For example, disc replacement is not recommended for patients with conditions that cause spinal deformity, such as scoliosis. In addition, older patients who have overall degeneration affecting the entire spine may not be good candidates for disc replacement. The condition of your bones and the location of the diseased disc or injury will also determine whether disc replacement is right for you. The physicians on the medical staff at THCDS and the Center for Disc Replacement screen patients carefully to help recommend the best surgical option.
The Bottom Line
Both disc replacement surgery and spinal fusion are safe and effective procedures that provide relief to many patients. Surgeons on the medical staff at THCDS have experience in both procedures. The best option for you will depend on your age, the cause and location of your neck or back pain, and the condition of your spine. Weigh your options in consultation with an experienced surgeon, and make the best choice for you.
If you are considering spine surgery, take a few minutes and complete our disc replacement assessment or download our disc replacement reference guide to find out if artificial disc replacement could be right for you.