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Longstreets new surgical device can ease chronic back pain
Zach Philyaw, left, was the recipient of a new surgical device July 14 that treats chronic lower back pain without spinal fusion surgery. Betsy Grunch, right, neurosurgeon, performed the operation. - photo by RON BRIDGEMAN

The technique for artificial disks in the back have been around “for a really long time,” The Longstreet Clinic neurosurgeon Betsy Grunch explained, but a new device could lead to a rejuvenation.

Zach Philyaw, a Gainesville firefighter and Clermont resident, is walking fine, if a bit gingerly, one week after surgery with a new artificial disk. Grunch and James Reeves, vascular surgeon with Northeast Georgia Physicians Group, operated on him Thursday, and he went home Friday.

Grunch said the new device, two pieces of titanium with a small piece of plastic between them, is “kind of reactivating the idea” that surgery on the lower two disks works.

The July 14 surgery was the first time in Georgia the new disc replacement operation has been done, Grunch said.

She and Matthew Hazzard, Longstreet surgeon at the Braselton office, have trained to do the surgery.

Grunch said the surgery “kind of lost favor” because of problems with devices, which were metal. The operation is more common for the neck, she said.

She added it is not common, in part, because insurance companies are reluctant to approve it. The insurance industry wants to see results after five years, Grunch said. She said the surgery has been performed about three years.

Getting by the Catch 22 of insurance companies wanting to see more results before approving the surgery is a problem, she said.

“I don’t have the day-to-day pain I had before the surgery,” Philyaw said.

He noted he is sore from the incision, which is made in the front. He must wait three months before starting physical therapy, he said, but he already is better, in his judgment.

“I’m feeling stuff now that I didn’t feel,” he said Thursday. “I couldn’t scratch the side of my leg before and feel it. Now, I can.”

Grunch said the plastic core of the artificial disc or “arthroplasty” provides a “pivot point” that is better for the lower back.

She said in spinal fusion surgery the disk or disks are immobilized. That adds stress to other parts of the back, she said, and can lead to other problems in a number of years.

With spinal fusion, Grunch said it takes about a year to recover and for bones to grow together. The recovery time with the new device is about half as long as with spinal fusion.

Grunch emphasized that the new device is not appropriate for every disk problem. She said it is “really ideal in a select group of people.” That group generally is younger — Philyaw is in his mid-30s — and specifically has a problem with the two lower disks.

Because the “back has a lot of stress and strain on it,” Grunch said, the operation has “to be precise.”

Philyaw has to be careful during his recovery, she said. “I don’t want him bending over.”

Philyaw said he had had back problems since he was a teenager and was told in his 20s that spinal fusion was the only option.

“I decided then I’d just go as long as I could go,” he said.

His wife, Miranda, said he told her before the surgery, “Someone has to be first.”

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