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YOUR HEALTH: A less invasive surgery that helps relieve disc pains in the back

Surgeons are testing a new way of fixing damaged discs

VINELAND, N.J. — Degenerative disc disease is a common condition as we age.

It's damage that comes after years of wear and tear on the ligaments in our back and neck. 

Now, doctors are testing a new minimally invasive procedure for fusing discs and alleviating pain.

Bob Fanucci's back starting giving him pain after thirty years as an electrical lineman.

"You know, you're in a bucket or you're on a pole. Climbing is a lot of looking up."

Eventually, Bob had symptoms he could no longer ignore.

"It just was keeping me up at night kind of pain. And I couldn't look up, and I couldn't turn, and the crunching noises."

X-rays of his neck showed damage to three discs of seven, putting pressure on the nerves.

Orthopedic spine and neck surgeon Rahul Shah felt Bob would benefit from a new type of surgery.

He entered the front of the neck to remove the damaged discs and replace them with an implant.

It's part of this fuse clinical study.

Dr. Shah is testing a minimally invasive way of delivering a small titanium implant through a tiny tube in the back to stabilize the spine without making long incisions.

"The muscles bounce back quicker, better, and their function, we believe, is better," said Dr. Shah, who practices at several southern New Jersey hospitals and is part of Premier Orthopedic Spine Associates.

This new clinical study evaluates whether the Posterior Cervical Stabilization System improves fusion rates for cervical fusion patients when used as part of circumferential cervical fusion. 

The results so far indicate that patients who receive circumferential fusion with PCSS have a higher rate of fusion and fewer surgical failures. 

"We work with a metal straw and the cuts are about the size of a dime or less, so they heal almost looking like little pimples as compared to a bigger cut," explained Dr. Shah.

"So, there is less tissue scarring, less movement, and less retraction of the muscles. So, the muscles bounce back quicker, and their function is better".

Bob started feeling the difference almost immediately.

"I got the full range of motion, I could drive, I could start physical therapy. It just astounded me that the results were that dramatic."

Dr. Shah said ideal candidates for the study are people with significant pain requiring surgery, and problems with three levels of neck vertebrae.

Smokers are proven poor candidates for spinal fusion surgery because smoking impairs the body's ability to heal properly. 

Also, patients who have arthritis throughout their lower back may not be good candidates due to the inability of their bones to fuse properly. 

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.