Spine fusion reversal surgery

October 11, 2010 3:06:38 PM PDT
A California doctor did the first spine fusion reversal surgery in the U.S. It's a risky procedure, but for some patients, undoing their initial surgery is the only option for pain relief.

Of the 150-thousand spinal fusions done every year, one doctor believes he has an option that could replace up to 80 percent of these surgeries.

Bobbie Jo Ramirez would never have caught a ball or tried it a month ago. But now that she has had spinal fusion reversal surgery, she can do more than she has in 10 years!

"I feel great," she said.

A back injury led to the original fusion -- where doctors weld two vertebrae together to stabilize the spine. It left her stiff and in pain.

Ramirez had spinal fusion reversed.

"It was excruciating. I mean just to try and roll yourself out of bed upright was just excruciating pain," Ramirez said.

She had migraines three times a week, and the pain permeated throughout her body, forcing this softball fanatic to quit the game she loved.

"It started at the neck, but it radiates through your shoulders to your arms to your fingertips," she explained.

Orthopedic surgeon Kenneth Light says many spinal fusions shouldn't be done.

"There is a common saying in the medical community and that is: 'Never have a spinal fusion,'" Light said.

He says the surgery severely limits motion, and for some, the pain doesn't go away. Doctor light became the first in the U.S. to reverse a fusion. He implants an artificial disk.

"Low and behold, we put the implant in. She woke up. She was fine. She felt fine enough to go home the next day, and four weeks later, she is doing exceptionally well," Light said.

"I haven't had a headache since I came out of surgery," she said.

Critics are unsure if the implant will last, and there is a chance of paralysis if it fails. But Ramirez says reversing her fusion reversed her painful path.

"I feel like I made a decision that's going to give me life again," Ramirez said.

The implant is made of the same materials that a hip replacement is made of. Likely candidates are people with a lot of back or neck pain and stiffness, preferably in the cervical region.