Magazine article Newsweek

Beating the Back Ache

Magazine article Newsweek

Beating the Back Ache

Article excerpt

A new procedure could revolutionize disc surgery

The human spine is a wondrous piece of machinery-and a balky one. Most of us suffer back problems at one time or another, but for the million or more Americans with damaged spinal discs, the pain is no mere annoyance. Some disc problems can make the act of sitting in a desk chair or car seat unbearable. And the traditional remedy-a costly surgical procedure called spinal fusion-is fraught with complications. Nearly 300,000 people endured the procedure last year alone, but the prospects for relief are improving. Early studies suggest that a new treatment called IDET (intradiscal electrothermal annuloplasty) works at least as well as fusion. The difference is that it takes about 15 minutes under local anesthetic. It costs $7,000 instead of $50,000. And patients walk out of the operating suite when it's over. Says one veteran, "It's not much worse than having a tooth filled."

To understand the new treatment, you need a sense of how spinal discs work. Think of a healthy disc as a car tire made of tightly woven ligaments and filled with soft putty (chart). Sandwiched between two vertebrae, it makes a good cushion. Unfortunately, the ligaments encasing a disc can loosen and tear after several decades of service. And when that happens, outside blood vessels can invade the disc, accompanied by nerve fibers that don't belong in such a high-pressure environment. The problem is more complicated than a rupture, or "herniation," because the pain originates inside the disc, not in the adjacent nerves it touches. …

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