Courtesy Texas Back Institute
An X-ray reveals the Charite artificial disc implanted in a patient's spine.
To implant Charite, a surgeon approaches the spine through a patient's abdomen, gently moving the organs and blood vessels aside, and carefully cutting down through the body cavity to reach the back. Once the damaged disc is removed, the two adjacent vertebrae are spread apart and the artificial disc is implanted to take its place. The procedure generally takes one to two hours and is often performed by two surgeons.
The Charite artificial disc
The Charite artificial spinal disc is made of two implant-grade metallic endplates and a moveable plastic center made out of polyethylene — the patient's new "disc." The two metal pieces each have six spikes that are pushed into and attached to spinal vertebrae. Once implanted, the device is designed to help align the spine and preserve its range of movement.
Courtesy Dr. Karin Büttner-Janz
Dr. Karin Büttner-Janz won two gold medals in gymnastics for East Germany in the '72 Olympics. Now an orthopedic surgeon, Büttner-Janz invented Charite to preserve more mobility in lower back-pain sufferers.
Several other artificial spinal discs are in development, though none have yet received FDA approval:
Some 65 million Americans suffer from low-back pain every year. Twelve million have a condition called Degenerative Disc Disease, which occurs when a disc in the lower back begins to lose the fluid inside it. The disc collapses and the spine loses its natural function and motion.
Until recently, the only surgical solution to Degenerative Disc Disease was a procedure called spinal fusion. Fusion can significantly reduce a patient's range of motion; sometimes, it can accelerate the deterioration of the discs above and below where the fusion took place — leading to more fusion and an increasingly stiff patient.
But now, surgeons at the Texas Back Institute near Dallas are pioneering in the United States a procedure that relies on an artificial disc called Charite that replaces the patient's damaged disc entirely.
The artificial disc, which has been used in Europe since 1987, recently received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Inserting the disc involves a technically demanding operation that requires an approach through the patient's abdomen.
Web Extra: Q&A on the Charite Artificial Disc Implant
The Charite implant procedure is considered routine in Europe. In the United States, Dr. Stephen Hochschuler and Dr. Scott Blumenthal, the principal investigator of the FDA study, have championed the operation. Blumenthal has performed more Charite operations than anyone in the country. He discussed the surgery with Wade Goodwyn: