In January, Stephanie Estabrook, 43, became the first person in Western Washington to receive an artificial disk — the latest technology to treat degenerative disk disease, a major form of back pain, one of the most common medical problems.

Replacing the damaged disk in her lower back, the new device eliminated the nerve pain that was causing such misery.



“Now I can get on with my life,” said Estabrook, whose back pain is mostly gone, though she’s still recovering from a surgical infection. “Maybe I can go on a hike again this spring. Maybe I can eventually work in the garden again — if I stay away from the shovel.”



The Food and Drug Administration approved the artificial disk in October for patients with degenerative disk disease at one of two vertebrae in the lower back — and who haven’t been helped by more conservative treatment.



Degenerative disk disease involves deterioration, from age or injury, of the disk, the natural cushion that separates the vertebrae of the spine.



Physicians hope the artificial disks will provide a long-term alternative to spinal fusion, where metal rods or cages are surgically implanted to stabilize the spine, relieve pain and induce one or more vertebra to grow together.



Made by DePuy Inc., a Johnson & Johnson company, the approved Charite artificial disk allows more flexibility than a fusion, has a shorter surgical recovery and is less likely to require additional surgery, according to its advocates.



“It’s the best advance I have seen in spine surgery in 15 years,” said Dr. Paul Schwaegler, one of five Seattle-area surgeons trained to perform the operation. Others are David Hanscom, Reggie Knight, Jeff Garr and Jay Williams.



The FDA based its approval on a DePuy study in 16 medical centers. Researchers compared 205 patients who had received the disk with 99 who’d had spinal fusion. After two years, the safety and effectiveness of the procedures were rated about the same.



On average, patients improved significantly from either procedure in a wide range of categories, including: pain, ability to care for oneself, lifting, walking, sitting, standing, sex, social life and travel. Still the artificial disk isn’t always an option. It is not suitable for people with an unstable spine, osteoporosis or scoliosis.



In the DePuy study, significant neurological problems from the surgery — leg pain, muscle weakness or nerve damage — occurred in 4.9 percent of artificial-disk patients and in 4 percent of fusion patients.



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