Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Spinal solutions, or How I Fixed my Broken Back

Skinny Bean from Denver, knowing I smashed my back in a car wreck as a child and many times since, sends a story about the first FDA-approved artificial spinal disc. Here's a quote from the story:

"The Food and Drug Administration granted approval Tuesday for the first artificial spinal disc for use in patients suffering from persistent lower back pain.

"The Charite artificial disc is made by DePuy Spine, Inc., of Raynham, Mass. Artificial discs have long been used in Europe.

"The disc, a plastic core sandwiched by two metal plates, is intended as an alternative to spinal fusion surgery. The operation eases pain, but can put more pressure on other discs."

I have a grade two spondylolisthesis (click "Isthmic" and then "play animation") from a head-on wreck at high speed without a seat belt at age 10, and never knew I damaged my spine as they didn't X-ray your whole spine after an auto accident as a matter of course in the '70s and there were plenty of bloody holes to contend with. I didn't want to go through a spinal fusion to fix it even though that seemed to be the only long-term mechanical solution to my L5/S1 vertebra resting on top of my sciatic nerves. I hunted around for a while and with the help of Dr. Bob, a friend in Austin, found this guy, who is a doctor at this clinic, where they do something called prolotherapy.

Prolo is a non-surgical method of growing soft tissue where it has been worn or damaged, or has lessened with age, specifically ligament and even cartilage. They inject you at problem sites with dextrose and other irritants, which cause more ligament or cartilage to grow where needed. It's been done since the '50s and used to be called Sclerotherapy since it was believed that scar tissue was grown in place of missing connective tissue, but it is now understood that actual ligament and cartilage is grown. Amazing things are possible through prolotherapy, and it has healed many for little expense and not much time spent.

Although I led a very active life (high school football, mountain biking, wakeboarding, snowboarding, general jackassedness) until fairly recently, my back started to turn on me about fourteen years ago, and about three years ago I couldn't leave the house for very long and was in miserable pain all the time. In my case, the actual treatment was pretty awful at first, 100+ injections at a time sometimes. Then again, I've talked to a lot of spinal fusion patients, and it has its own drawbacks, some catastrophic. Fusing one area usually puts considerable pressure on the spine above and below too, and often results in more fusions surgeries. I know one guy who's had seven, and the last one didn't fuse. Yowch.

It took two years of prolo to make my back as good as it is now, which is to say about like a 40-year-old man's back, which it is. After heavy exercise or lifting it will be a little sore the next day, but that's it. My wife and I flew to Hawaii and back four months ago, and it didn't bother me a bit, and I can do most physical things except those that are brutal to the lower back (or rather I won't try them, so it's the same thing).

My neck started coming apart about two years ago and Dr. Harris is treating it aggressively now. Hurts like hell today because of the inflammation, but in a few months I will be done with it too, and feel like someone who didn't spend most of his life destroying his body. I strongly recommend prolotherapy, and think most people would be surprised to know that there is a cheap, effective way to solve structural problems without surgery. Check it out - almost every adult has soft-tissue problems of some kind or other.


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