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Disc Fusion or Disc Replacement? NHL Star Jack Eichel’s Recent Trade Raises the Question

If you follow hockey, you likely heard the news about Jack Eichel’s trade from the Buffalo Sabres to the Vegas Golden Knights. In an unprecedented move, the 25-year-old center agreed to a trade — all centering on his preferred course of treatment for a herniated disc in his neck.

The TLDR (too long didn’t read) version is that Eichel’s disc required surgery. The Sabres wanted him to get the more commonly practiced disc fusion surgery. He wanted the newer disc replacement surgery.

Why Disc Replacement Surgery?

Disc fusion and disc replacement surgery can both deliver desired results for a patient experiencing the pain of a herniated disc. The former has been around longer meaning its long-term prognosis is more tested. However, disc replacement surgery is becoming a preferred treatment approach for the right candidate.

“The ideal disc replacement patient is a young adult, under age 35, who has a 1- or 2-level herniated disc with pain in the neck going into the arm. If all conservative care options have failed for that individual, then he or she would be a great operative candidate for disc replacement,” Beacon Spine Specialist Jaideep Chunduri, M.D. weighed in. “The right patient also can’t have instability or abnormal shifting in one vertebra on top of the other. The neck has to have some relative stability and little to no degeneration in the neck. An older patient, who has more degeneration, is a better candidate for disc fusion.”

The Difference Between Disc Replacement and Disc Fusion Surgeries

When someone has a herniated disc, as previously mentioned, there are two surgical options once other minimally invasive or non-surgical options have proved unsuccessful: disc fusion surgery and disc replacement surgery.

“In both procedures, the patient’s herniated disc is removed. From there, the course of treatment is to either do a fusion, which is a procedure that’s been done for several years, or a disc replacement,” said Dr. Chunduri. “Jack Eichel’s situation is tricky. Disc replacement has been used for around 6-7 years and has never been done in a professional hockey player. Jack is a young player who’s really good, and that makes his situation a big deal.”

In patients like Eichel, fusions can change stresses in the spine. Conversely, disc replacement can protect the other discs because replacement allows for movement whereas fusion, by nature, doesn’t.

Dr. Chunduri continued, “Joint replacements have been tried and tested for years, and while disc replacements use essentially the same materials, it’s a newer procedure in comparison. What is known is that joint replacements are lasting longer and longer in patients, and by extension, the hope is that disc replacements will, too.”

Recovery time does vary between the procedures. Fusions take up to six months to fuse. Dr. Chunduri releases most fusion patients back to more vigorous work (with restrictions) after 4-6 months on average. With a disc replacement, the patient in a more vigorous work environment is released back to work in about 8-10 weeks. Rehabilitation is still the same for both options — working on motion, strength and keeping muscles loose.

And on Eichel’s decision to choose disc replacement over fusion, Dr. Chunduri offered this, “It’s never been done on an NHL player. It’s ultimately what he decided to do months ago and management finally agreed to let him go through with it. Based on the facts I know, it’s the perfect procedure for him, and many other surgeons would agree that it’s right for an active 25-year-old in good health.”

Get Back to Health with Beacon

Back and neck pain can be debilitating. Specialists at Beacon, like Dr. Chunduri, are here to help. Make an appointment today, and we’ll create a care plan that gets you back to feeling better.

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