It happens all too often. A worker suffers an injury to his or her neck or back. Though the injured worker never had neck or back pain before the injury, the workers’ compensation insurance company questions the claim. According to the workers’ compensation insurance carrier, the injured worker is suffering from “degenerative disc disease,” not a work injury. In reality, of course, it is the work injury which has made the degenerative disc disease start to cause pain. In Pennsylvania, an “aggravation” of a pre-existing condition, like degenerative disc disease, is considered a “new injury,” allowing an injured worker to collect PA workers’ comp benefits.
That is only half the battle, unfortunately. Once the degenerative disc disease has been made symptomatic by the work injury, the symptoms often do not stop. Frequently, the injured worker will try many “conservative” treatment options, such as medications and physical therapy. Failing that, doctors might try various types of injections, including epidural steroid injections. Sadly, though, time and again, the injured worker remains in pain despite these efforts.
Once the pain has continued for longer than six months, and various conservative treatment options have failed to reduce the symptoms, doctors start to talk about surgery as an option. There is no doubt that spinal surgery, whether for the neck or the back, is a last resort. As with any major surgical procedure, there are serious consequences which can result from such an operation. Moreover, there is no guarantee the injured worker will be any better after surgery.
In the past few years, there have been some new options when it comes to cervical or lumbar spine surgery. “Artificial disc replacement” is a procedure which is now available for both the neck and the back. Our spines are comprised of “discs.” One could think of these discs as jelly donuts. When a disc is damaged, the jelly leaks out of the donut, and the donut flattens (putting more strain on the discs above and below the damaged disc). Artificial disc replacement is designed to avoid the strain on other discs, by inserting an artificial disc where the damaged disc was.
The artificial disc used for the lumbar spine, Charite’, was approved for use by the FDA in October, 2004. Then, in July, 2007, the FDA approved Prestige for the cervical spine. As with any medical decision, tremendous thought should go into what action is best for any particular patient. The fact that new options are developing, to relieve the chronic pain faced by the injured worker, is very encouraging.