For years, the only good surgical option for degenerative disc disease was spinal fusion. Spinal fusion is defined as removing the affected discs and causing bone to grow between the vertebrae. The result was stopping any motion in the area, thereby reducing pain. The newest technique in dealing with degenerative disc disease is spinal stabilization. For additional information, read pages 14-15 in the AH Health Matters 2009.
As opposed to a fusion where a degenerative disc is removed and one bone is made to join to another, stabilization is a technique that pedicle screws preserves the damaged disc. Instead of being sacrificed to reduce pain, spinal stabilization assists the disc and supports it in its function, significantly reducing pain, yet protecting the discs above and below from further wear. Stabilization uses the same surgical approach of traditional spinal fusion, but employs flexible materials to limit motion, but preserve anatomic structures. Stabilization uses pedicle screws, just like a fusion, but the screws are not connected by rigid rods. Instead, the screws are connected with polyurethane spacers and polyethylene cords. The cords keep the bones from moving too far apart and the spacers keep them from moving too close together. This push-pull action between the spacers and cords limits motion and reduces pain, yet helps restore and retain disc function.
There are several distinct advantages of stabilization over fusion: 1) no removal of the degenerative disc (less risk of nerve injury and
maintains the disc integrity), 2) no need to wait for bone to heal (the patient can start moving right away and recovery is reduced from months to weeks), 3) can be done using minimally invasive techniques, 4) enables the damaged disc to function better over the long term, 5) better preserves the healthy discs above and below, and 6) can be changed to a fusion later if the degenerative disease progresses.
Indications for stabilization are degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis (slipped disc), and dynamic nerve root impingement. This system can be used for younger active patients, but is also available to older patient with good bone quality. This technique is a better option than fusion for those who participate in heavier work or activity. Stabilization better protects unaffected discs from the stress and strain of heavier work.