About 300 thousand spinal operations are performed each year in the U.S., but one in three of those surgeries will result in failure. When a procedure goes wrong, patients are often left with few options. Now, one doctor who is fixing spines and changing lives.

Sharion Wilton is happiest with a needle and thread in hand, but quilting was just too painful when Sharion injured her spine 15 years ago. It happened after she passed out and fell in her bathroom one night.

“I put my head through the wall,” Sharion Wilton told Ivanhoe.

Excruciating neck pain and migraines followed.

“It felt like a hot poker in my back,”Sharion said.

She had a spinal fusion to fix the problem, but over time, the discs on either side of her spine disintegrated. Dr. Kenneth Light says her spine was fused in an awkward position.

“It made the discs above work twice as hard when the patient looked straight ahead,” Kenneth I. Light, MD, Spine Surgeon in San Francisco, California, told Ivanhoe.

Dr. Light cut where it had been fused, straightened it, and replaced the faulty discs with two artificial implants.

“By cutting the fusion and putting the disc replacement in, it allowed the spine to straighten itself,” Dr. Light explained.

Sharion was one of the first patients to have the surgery.

“I feel like a brand new woman, I do. I feel like I got my life back,” Sharion said, and now pain isn’t interfering with her quilting.

The disc replacements should last a lifetime. In rare cases, the implants can migrate into the bone, but Dr. Light says that risk is extremely unusual. Spinal implants have been used in Europe for over 30 years, but have only been used in the U.S. for about seven.

BACKGROUND: Spinal cord injuries are one of the most painful injuries of the body. Not only is it extremely dangerous to injure your neck or spine, but it can affect the movement of the rest of the body. Spinal cord injuries (SCI) are primarily common in adults, but children sometimes suffer from them too. Doctors diagnose a spinal cord injury by the level and type. This is determined by the location of injury on the spinal cord and the loss of feeling or numbness. Spinal cord injuries can aggravate discs and nerves in the back and cause them to over compensate for the injured nervous system. (Source: http://www.spinalcord.org/resource-center/askus/index.php?pg=kb.page&id=1384)

CAUSE: Common causes of spinal cord injuries are typically due to physical accidents such as:

  • Car accidents
  • Sports injury
  • A fall from an extreme height
  • Stab or bullet wound
  • Severe twist of the middle body
  • Diving accident

(Source: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000029.htm)

SYMPTOMS: The severity of a spinal cord injury relates to the place of the injury on the spinal cord. “The completeness” is also a way to identify how severe a spinal injury is. There are two classifications of severity; complete and incomplete. A complete injury is if all sensory and motor function is obsolete below the spinal injury and an incomplete injury is if there is some motor and sensory activity beneath the spinal injury. Some symptoms include:

  • Paralysis (loss of movement) in arms or legs
  • Trouble walking
  • Headache, neck pain or stiff neck
  • Tingling or numbness in leg or arm
  • Head is in unusual position

(Source: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000029.htm and http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/spinal-cord-injury/DS00460/DSECTION=symptoms)

NEW TREATMENT: A failed back or neck surgery is a fear of all patients who are in need of back or spinal cord surgery and they have a reason to be. Every one out of three back surgeries will have to be re-attempted. Failed back surgery syndrome (FBSS) characterizes the case of those who have had an unsuccessful outcome with spine or back surgery. But now, there is a procedure for spine injuries that can straighten the spine and replace damaged discs in the back. Dr. Kenneth Light of San Francisco, California performs disc replacement surgeries that relieve any back pain and fix what previous doctors could not. This procedure also improves a patient’s range of motion in the back and neck. With a quick recovery rate, more patients are looking more into this procedure than traditional surgery. (Source: Dr. Kenneth Light)

Kenneth I. Light, MD, Spine Surgeon in San Francisco, California, talks about a new breakthrough surgery for your back.

Almost everybody knows someone who seems to have back problems. How many of those go wrong?

Dr. Light:  There are about 250,000 laminectomies done every year and it’s said in this country that of 1/3 of all spinal operations result in failure. So, that would be about a hundred thousand failures a year.

So, every day you’re seeing someone who went to a doctor to get something fixed and now you have to fix that, correct?

Dr. Light: Pretty much.