AGING
January 31, 2008

A Welcome Alternative to Spinal Fusion

It was the kind of injury that left Kelly Weber a grim choice: spinal fusion or lifelong pain.

An avid tennis player, skier and water therapy instructor, Ms. Weber, led an active life until five years ago, when a car accident destroyed two disks in her spine.

After the crash, Weber had surgery to take pressure off a pinched nerve in the spinal column. The doctors then suggested surgical fusion of three of her lumbar vertebrae, but she decided to wait, hoping that advances in technology would provide a less-invasive option.

Her wait lasted five years — five years of daily pain. "I couldn't extend my right leg because I'd have pain going down it. So I'd have to keep the steering wheel really close and my leg bent, and sometimes I couldn't even drive because of the pain," said the 40-year-old mother of two.

Now, Weber is glad she did. A new kind of minimally invasive spine surgery performed at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is allowing Weber to return to the tennis court and ski slopes without pain.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Burak Ozgur, M.D., who performed the surgery, said the procedure, which takes about three and a half hours, is performed in two steps. "First, we approach from the side, exactly 90 degrees from the spine, and access the two disk spaces. We remove the disks and put in 'cages' that contain bone graft materials and a protein that enhances and speeds up the fusion process. Then from the back, we insert screws and rods to stabilize the spine."

The entire operation is performed through four incisions, each measuring about an inch and a half. These are closed with melt-away stitches and glue, resulting in very small scars. More importantly, the procedure spares the muscle injury and significant blood loss that is common with traditional back surgery, along with the long, painful months of recuperation.

Weber was discharged from the hospital after three days. "I cannot believe how good I felt right afterward. I went Christmas shopping. My mom had to make me slow down," she said.

"I think this procedure is revolutionizing spinal fusions because it's changing how people are recovering," Ozgur said. Compared to invasive surgery, the end result looks the same ... but the recovery is much improved." The surgery is also an option for those with adult degenerative scoliosis.
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