Originally Published: January 1, 2011 10 p.m.
When a disc in Jim Sanders' back blew out, the extreme pain drove him to the doctor's office to learn what his options were.
Spinal discs act as shock absorbers between vertebrae that hold the spine together and allow for slight movement.
Doctors told the Prescott man he could do nothing and see if the pain improved over time; he could undergo a surgical fusion of the two vertebrae adjacent to where the disc had gone out; or he could have a discectomy, which would remove all or part of the herniated disc material that presses on the nerve or the spinal cord.
Sanders knew he couldn't wait, because his pain was excruciating and radiated down his leg.
But Sanders had concerns that a fusion would limit his ability to move, possibly ending his career as a commercial pilot, and that a discectomy might fail while he was in the air.
So Sanders searched for an alternative, and learned about disc replacement surgery, which has been done for three years in the U.S. and about 20 years in Europe. He met with Dr. Donald Hales, an orthopedic spine surgeon at Flagstaff Medical Center, to discuss the procedure.
In the past two years, Flagstaff Medical's Hales, Dr. John Hall and Dr. Michael Glover have performed nearly 165 disc replacement surgeries, which clean out the material from the painful disk and replace it with a new disk made from artificial material. Surgeons from all over the country have come to observe the surgery, said Starla Collins, spokeswoman for Flagstaff Medical Center.
Hales evaluated Sanders and determined he would be a good candidate for disc replacement surgery, because he is relatively young with little degeneration of disc fat, has no arthritis in the joints of his spine, and since preserving motion was critical to his career and lifestyle. "A fusion puts stress on the adjacent vertebrae. A moderate percentage of them will wear out over time, and further surgery may be necessary," Hales said. "Replacing the painful disc with an artificial disc does not stress adjacent segments."
During the surgery, a general surgeon makes incisions in the skin on the abdominal side and gently moves aside the muscles and organs so that the spine surgeon can remove the compromised disc and insert an artificial disc guided by X-rays to the correct position, Hales said. "Patients tend to have less pain around the time of the surgery and get better quicker," Hales said.
Sanders, who had the surgery Nov. 2, said he was up and walking the day after his surgery and his back and leg pain were gone.
Sanders said that over time, as he recovers, he looks forward to returning to the cockpit, as well as working out, riding ATVs with his four children, and camping like he used to before he was injured. Sanders said he has recommended that his friends with back pain talk to their doctors to see if they are good candidates for this surgery.
"It's important to get into your doctor sooner rather than later if you are having back pain," Hales said.