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Artificial Disc Offers New Hope for Treating Back Pain

The Charite artificial disc
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The Charite artificial disc

Some 65 million Americans suffer from low-back pain every year. Twelve million have a condition called Degenerative Disc Disease, which occurs when a disc in the lower back begins to lose the fluid inside it. The disc collapses and the spine loses its natural function and motion.

Until recently, the only surgical solution to Degenerative Disc Disease was a procedure called spinal fusion. Fusion can significantly reduce a patient's range of motion; sometimes, it can accelerate the deterioration of the discs above and below where the fusion took place -- leading to more fusion and an increasingly stiff patient.

But now, surgeons at the Texas Back Institute near Dallas are pioneering in the United States a procedure that relies on an artificial disc called Charite that replaces the patient's damaged disc entirely.

The artificial disc, which has been used in Europe since 1987, recently received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Inserting the disc involves a technically demanding operation that requires an approach through the patient's abdomen.

Web Extra: Q&A on the Charite Artificial Disc Implant

The Charite implant procedure is considered routine in Europe. In the United States, Dr. Stephen Hochschuler and Dr. Scott Blumenthal, the principal investigator of the FDA study, have championed the operation. Blumenthal has performed more Charite operations than anyone in the country. He discussed the surgery with Wade Goodwyn:

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Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.