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If you have chronic pain caused by a spinal disc, chances are you are trying to choose between two surgical options: artificial disc replacement surgery and spinal fusion surgery. A common question most patients have is, “How long does an artificial disc replacement last?” The short answer is many decades, but this article explains why most people can expect artificial disc replacement to last for the rest of their lives.

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How Long Will My Artificial
Disc Replacement Last?

In more than 90% of patients, an artificial disc replacement will last at least 10 years and likely for the rest of your life. Simulated wear studies indicate artificial discs could last a minimum of 40 years and perhaps up to 100 years. Since most people have this surgery as adults, that means artificial disc replacement at any given level is a once-in-a-lifetime procedure for most. That being said, patients should understand the details of how long an artificial disc replacement will last before undergoing the surgery.

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Understanding Artificial Disc
Replacement Surgery

Artificial disc replacement is a spine surgery procedure in which a disc between two spinal bones that causes pain or other symptoms is removed and replaced with an implant. The artificial disc mimics the form and function of the natural disc that was removed. The artificial disc supports the spine above it and allows the spinal bones surrounding it to bend, flex, and twist. In short, artificial disc replacement surgery can reduce neck or lower back pain and preserve spinal motion.

Increasing Artificial
Disc Lifespan

You may not realize it, but you can take steps to make sure you get the most out of your artificial disc.
Ways to maximize the lifespan of an artificial disc:

Follow all of your discharge instructions – Your discharge instructions are designed to help you heal fully, quickly, and safely. If your discharge instructions suggest avoiding certain activities, avoid them for your own good. On the other hand, your discharge instructions may recommend some forms of activity to help you tone and strengthen your muscles.

Actively participate in physical therapy – Your physical therapist is the real expert on how to get the most out of your artificial disc replacement surgery. However, physical therapy exercises do take work. If you commit to the program and work the exercises, you will put yourself in the best position to get the most out of your artificial disc.

Maintain a healthy weight –Your artificial disc is very sturdy, but if you carry excess weight, you are putting additional strain on the implant and, more importantly, the spinal bones and discs below the artificial disc. Excess weight can make it more likely you will need surgery to treat a spinal level below the artificial disc.

Eat a healthy diet that helps your bone repair – While artificial disc replacement does not require a large amount of bone growth like a spinal fusion does, the bone still should heal and integrate with the implant. Make sure you get adequate nutrition, including vitamins like vitamin D and minerals like calcium.

Stop smoking – Do you really need another reason to quit? If so, here are three more: smoking increases the risk for surgical complications, makes your recovery take longer, and slows down the rate at which your bone accepts the artificial disc.

Choose an artificial disc replacement expert – The quality of the artificial disc replacement depends on the skill and experience of the spine surgeon. Experienced spine surgeons tend to have lower complication rates, and the risk of revision surgery is lower.

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Artificial Disc Replacement
Durability: Results of
Clinical Trials

You may have read that an artificial disc replacement lasts up to ten years, but this is misleading. The reason most sources list ten years is because the longest clinical trials are usually only designed to last for about ten years. Ten years is a long time for a clinical trial, but probably not enough time to determine how long an artificial disc will actually last.

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Artificial Disc Replacement
Durability: Results Of
Simulated Wear Testing

Another way to determine how long an artificial disc will last is to test the disc in a laboratory. Researchers use a machine to put artificial discs under the stresses and strains that the disc would face in human spine. However, in simulated wear testing studies, the testing is faster and much more intense than any one person would ever endure. For example, researchers determined that artificial discs could withstand approximately 10 million simulation cycles, which is about the number of shocks and stresses someone would have over 50 (gymnast) to 100 (movie buff) years of wear. Simulated wear testing is not exactly the same as a clinical trial, but this intensive testing does suggest that most artificial discs can last for far longer than 10 years.

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Artificial Disc Replacement
vs. Spinal Fusion

Patients who require surgery for spinal disc disease basically have two options: artificial disc replacement and spinal fusion. Because spinal fusion results in a permanent fusing of two spinal bones together, it is considered a one-and-done solution. The two spinal bones can no longer move relative to each other. If all goes well, the fusion lasts forever.

The key part of that last sentence is “if all goes well.” Both spine surgery procedures carry a risk that the surgery will need to be revised. In other words, there is small but real chance a patient will need to undergo a second surgery to correct issues with the first spine surgery. Interestingly, we now know that the overall risk of revision surgery is higher for patients who had spinal fusion compared to those who had artificial disc replacement. The study showed that people treated with spinal fusion surgery were about twice as likely to need a second operation to correct the first surgery than those treated with artificial disc replacement. In most cases, the spinal “fusion” failed to fuse.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is artificial disc replacement?

Artificial disc replacement is a spine surgery procedure in which a spine surgeon removes a diseased or damaged intervertebral disc and replaces it with an artificial disc. Removing the problematic disc relieves neck or lower back pain and related symptoms. The artificial disc provides the proper height between vertebrae, structural support for the spine, and good range of motion at the treated level.

Who is a candidate for artificial disc replacement?

A spine surgeon who routinely performs artificial disc replacement can determine if you are a candidate for the procedure. In general, good candidates for artificial disc replacement are those who have strong and healthy bones (no osteoporosis, no cancer, no scoliosis) and who want to preserve spinal motion and flexibility. Your spine surgeon will review your imaging (e.g., MRI) to make sure you do not have substantial facet joint disease or any bone that is pressing on a spinal nerve. As long as your neck or lower back pain and other symptoms are caused by a diseased disc and the other factors above apply to you, you are a likely a good candidate for artificial disc replacement.

How successful is artificial disc replacement?

Artificial disc designs have improved substantially over the past two decades. That means that artificial disc replacement is now quite successful at reducing pain, restoring function, and preserving spinal mobility. Patient satisfactions scores typically range from 85 to 100%.


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