A mini cushion implanted in the spine could be an effective new way to cure back pain.
New research shows the polyester-covered device reduces pain by nearly three-quarters, and also improves movement by more than 60 per cent.
The implant is designed for those with damaged discs and has a silicon core which will act as a shock absorber to reduce stress on the surrounding vertebrae.
In trials, all patients showed improved symptoms, and in 92 per cent of cases the results were rated as excellent or good.
‘It has changed my life, ‘says Rebecca Morgan, one of the first patients in the UK to have the implant. ‘As a result, I have finally said goodbye to all the prescription
drugs I used to take, and gone back to the gym.’
Around 16 million people in the UK suffer with back pain and the NHS spends about £480 million a year on the condition. One of the most common causes of pain in the back is degenerative disc disease, where pain is caused by a damaged disc.
At birth, the discs are about 80per cent water, but with age or disease, they dry out, losing some of their height, which brings the vertebrae closer together. As a result, the discs do not absorb shocks so well, particularly when walking, running or jumping.
And because there is very little blood supply to the disc, once it is injured it cannot repair itself and degeneration sets in.
This not only causes back pain, but may also cause tingling or numbness in the legs or buttocks, or difficulty walking. The pain can radiate out to the legs.
Discs can also herniate — bulge or slip out of place — and put pressure on surrounding nerves, causing pain.
The new implant, called the Device for Intervertebral Assisted Motion, is H-shaped and made from a soft gel.
It is implanted between the spinous processes — the vertebrae that protrude from the back of the spine and create the bumps you can feel if you run your finger up and down your back — around the damaged disc.
Insertion involves an incision a few centimetres in length along the spine. The surgeon prepares the area for the implant by removing a minimum amount of soft and bony tissue. Once in place, it is fastened to the adjacent vertebrae.
Research shows that not only does the implant work as a shock absorber, but it restores the natural working of the joint and eases pain. Indeed, results from a new study involving 68 patients aged 23 to 75 show considerable benefits.
Movement improved by 64 per cent on average, and pain was reduced by 71 per cent. All the patients showed improvements. The results were not significantly affected by age, and none of the patients had any recurrence of disc herniation, which the manufacturer, Medronic, says is proof of the device’s effectiveness.
Rebecca’s back pain started several years ago, but became significantly worse after she had children.
‘I started to find everyday activities difficult — even sitting down for any length of time was painful,’ says the mother of two from Bristol.
‘The thought of having to lift my son in and out of the bath would sometimes drive me to tears.
‘I was eventually referred to a spinal specialist at the Spire Hospital in Bristol. An X-Ray and an MRI scan showed I had a collapsed disc and because of the reduced disc height, the nearby joints were inflamed and rubbing together.
‘The specialist suggested minimally invasive surgery to insert this new device between the joints. According to him, my disc was so unsupported and unstable that he could move it every which way during the operation.
‘I was up and walking within a couple of hours after the operation, and within a few weeks I was back to normal. I went on a long-haul flight to Australia, to take the children to visit relatives, just seven weeks after the operation. Now, I’m looking forward to starting pilates classes.’
Consultant orthopaedic surgeon Dr Ian Harding, who carried out the operation in Bristol, said: ‘This is a very good treatment for someone like Rebecca, who presented with severe low-back pain.
‘An MRI scan showed some subtle changes in two of the joints in her back. A standing X-Ray showed that one of them slipped backwards every time she moved or stood up.
‘Traditionally, the only option is a procedure where the spinal bones are effectively fused together. But this new small implant can be placed between the vertebrae without stripping a lot of muscle from the spine.
‘It acts as a firm cushion and a stabiliser, and is unique in that it is not made out of metal and isn’t stiff. Rebecca had instant relief and needed only a short stay in hospital.’