If you experience back pain, your doctor will perform a comprehensive consultation to accurately diagnose the source and then recommend noninvasive treatment options like physical therapy or epidural steroid injections, as well as surgery, if necessary. Because each patient is different and the source of their back pain varies, surgical procedures also vary, but your surgeon may recommend the use of a surgical implant to repair your spine.

A spinal implant is any device your surgeon uses to stabilize or repair your back. These can range from simple screws to artificial discs and they remain in your body after the procedure is complete to help your spine function as it was intended.

It’s okay to have questions about spinal implants if your doctor is recommending surgery. Use this guide to learn more about how these implants work, what they are made of, and how they are used in a medical capacity.


Spine Implants – Their Purpose

Spinal implants provide support and stabilization when the spine cannot function as it should. When your spinal discs are damaged, they can move out of place and cause further damage to other discs and your spinal nerve canal. These implants prevent vertebrae from moving further out of place and causing more damage. They also can reduce pain levels in patients by preventing further damage to the nerve canal.

Spinal implants are used to treat several forms of back pain. These are tools that allow surgeons to provide solutions to patients. For example, consider how you use a hammer or a screwdriver. These tools aren’t meant for just one project or a single task. Instead, they can be used in a variety of ways to help you complete a range of projects. Spinal implants are similar. They provide solutions to treat several conditions and fractures.

Here are a few examples of when spinal implants would be used.

  • Scoliosis: rods can prevent the spine from curving further while moving the vertebrae into a straighter position.
  • Kyphosis: this condition is an exaggerated rounding of the upper back. Spinal implants can reduce this curvature to help patients stand up straight.
  • Degenerative Disc Disease: doctors can remove broken or worn-out discs from between the spine and replace them with artificial implants. This allows patients to retain mobility more than spinal fusion surgery.
  • Fracture: if a patient is in an accident where they fracture their spine, implants can keep the vertebrae in place. This helps them heal and prevents bones from moving into the nerve canal.

With the help of spinal implants, patients are able to move, stand up straight, and feel comfortable in their lives again. Most people never feel the implants but benefit greatly from their presence.


Types of Spinal Implants

Spinal implants can be used for both fusion and non-fusion surgeries. They can secure your bones in place or they can enable you to bend, twist, and move as you otherwise would. If your doctor thinks spinal surgery is the best course of action in your case, they will walk you through the procedure and any spinal implants they intend to use. Here are a few types of spinal implants you may encounter.

  • Cages: these are used in spinal fusion surgery to hold two vertebrae together. Eventually, the bones grow (or graft) around the cage, providing additional support.
  • Plates: these are flat pieces of metal that are attached to two different vertebrae with screws. The plates stabilize the vertebrae while still allowing the spine to bend.
  • Rods: these are the final implant option for spinal fusion. They are usually connected by hooks or screws to the vertebrae.
  • Artificial discs: these are used in non-fusion procedures. The artificial discs replace the natural ones between your vertebrae. They work just like natural discs except they are more durable.
  • Expandable rods: these are used to straighten the spine without fusing the vertebrae together. These are often used to treat scoliosis in children and reduce the number of surgeries they need.

From this list, you can see how doctors will use different spinal implants depending on the needs of the patient. While one patient might need a cage around two vertebrae, another patient might be a candidate for artificial disc replacement. The implant choice also depends on the personal preference of the doctor inserting it.


Surgeries that use Spinal Implants

Many different surgical procedures use implants of some kind. These implants can be made of titanium, stainless steel, and even durable plastic materials that were designed for the human body. This isn’t a comprehensive list of surgeries that use spinal implants, but the following procedures can help you see how they would be beneficial.

  • Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion (ALIF): your doctor enters through your lower abdomen to access your spine from the front. This allows them to fuse two vertebrae together without potentially damaging the spinal cord.
  • Posterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion (PLIF): this is a similar fusion procedure as the ALIF model except the doctor enters through your lower back.
  • Transforaminal Lumbar Interbody Fusion (TLIF): your doctor will enter through the foramina, or openings where nerve roots enter the spine. From there, they will complete the lumbar fusion procedure.
  • Axial Lumbar Interbody Fusion (AxiaLIF): your doctor enters through a small incision through the tailbone and inserts rods to fuse your spine. This is considered a minimally-invasive operation.

The goal of all of these surgeries is to choose the safest method to approach the patient’s spine. Your doctor wants to minimize the risk of damaging the nerves in your spinal cord while maximizing their chances of a successful operation. They also want to reduce your chances of infection and decrease your recovery time. All of these factors will contribute to your surgeon’s desired point of entry.


Pros and Cons of Spinal Implants

There are significantly more pros than cons of spinal implants. The main benefit is that it provides long-term solutions for back pain. Surgery addresses the cause of back pain rather than treating the symptoms you experience. While pain medication and temperature therapy can reduce pain levels, they don’t fix the actual problem.

Additionally, advancements in spinal implant technology can better preserve (and even improve) patient mobility. Modern spinal fusion implants are more flexible and allow patients to move their spines. Artificial disc replacement eliminates the need for spinal fusion by replacing broken discs entirely.

Finally, these implants are designed to be safe within the human body. It is rare for patients to have negative reactions to the titanium rods or plastic artificial discs that your doctor inserts. Once your implants are in place, you can focus on healing from your surgery and embracing the hobbies you love.

While implants are beneficial to the majority of patients that have them, there are still some drawbacks to this form of treatment. Surgery of any kind comes with risks. Even minimally-invasive outpatient procedures will require preparation by the patient and a recovery period. If your doctor recommends an operation to insert a spinal implant, you will not be able to work for two to six weeks after the procedure. Your body needs to recover and adjust to the new materials supporting your vertebrae.


When to Talk to a Doctor About Spinal Implants

If you experience back pain, your doctor likely won’t rush to recommend surgery. While spinal fusion and non-fusion operations are usually safe, most doctors will start with non-invasive treatment options first.

To treat your back pain, your doctor might recommend low-impact exercises like swimming, hot or cold therapy (like the application of a cold compress), and physical therapy exercises you can do from your home. If these treatments don’t work, your doctor may move forward with surgical options.

The main thing to know is that you should talk to your doctor about back pain as soon as it starts. The earlier your doctor can identify an issue with your spine, the sooner they can take steps toward corrective treatment. Too often, patients wait until their pain levels are unbearable to seek treatment. This potentially causes more damage to the spine and requires more work to relieve the pain.

It is better to talk to your doctor about spinal discomfort early on than to wait until you can no longer work or even move comfortably.


Discuss Your Back Pain With Dr. Lanman

Back pain comes in many forms. Some people experience consistent throbbing sensations throughout the day while others feel sudden spasms that can leave them unable to move. Regardless of the type of pain you experience, you deserve the best care possible to restore your spinal health and mobility.

Dr. Todd H. Lanman is one of the leading spinal neurosurgeons in the country. He has more than 30 years of experience working with spinal implants and surgery, served as a principal investigator in several advanced disc replacement clinical trials, and published dozens of peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on spinal fusion, disc replacement, and spinal implants. While he’s an expert as a provider, he’s also experienced back pain firsthand as a patient and has undergone eleven spinal surgeries to treat his spine and restore his mobility. It is this lived experience that drives him to help patients eliminate their back pain and get back to living their lives

You don’t have to live with back pain. Request an appointment with Dr. Lanman for a comprehensive consultation and take the first steps toward living your life pain-free.


Ready to reclaim your life? Get in touch today.