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  Vol. 20, No. 7  Previous Table of Contents Home  Next April 15, 1998 

Coral 'Find' Proves Valuable In Treating Neck And Back Pain

Methodist Health Care System

Mike Lambert has a treasure that came from a clear blue coral sea on the other side of the world. It's not a pearl, or an ancient doubloon, but to Lambert it's infinitely more valuable than either.

Lambert has a piece of coral, harvested near Indonesia, amidst the bones of his spinal column. It's a new surgical technique being studied by a physician at The Methodist Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine.

Coral spinal fusion, as it is called, is being studied by Dr. David Baskin, a neurosurgeon at Methodist and a professor of neurosurgery and anesthesiology at Baylor. The technique uses Indonesian coral to help correct problems in the neck, such as a herniated disc.

Lambert, 38, underwent the new surgery after he suddenly experienced a sharp pain in the center of his chest and his left arm went numb one day while getting ready for work.

"It was a really horrible pain - at first I thought it was a heart attack," says Lambert, who is a supervisor for a Houston tool-and-die manufacturer. "After a few tests, however, doctors saw that one of my spinal discs was out of place, pushing three-eighths of an inch into my spinal cord."

The disc is a small cartilage pad situated between bones of the spinal column. When healthy, discs allow normal motion and act as a connector, spacer and shock absorber for the spine. When discs rupture, herniate or bulge - as in Lambert's case - they put pressure on the spinal cord and nerve roots and can be quite painful.

"Usually we correct this problem by removing the disc and grafting new bone into the trouble spot to strengthen that part of the spinal column," says Dr. Baskin. "Normally we take a piece of bone from another part of the body - usually the hip - and place it into the neck."

Instead of a bone graft, the new procedure uses coral, which is the bone-like remains of dead sea animals. "When this coral is treated and all organisms removed from it, it has precisely the same chemical composition and physical structure as human bone," says Dr. Baskin. "It's been used extensively for treating jaw disorders; we are now studying it for use in the neck."

For patients, the attraction for this type of surgery as opposed to the traditional bone-graft procedure is that there is no secondary surgery to remove the graft. "In order to get that graft, we have to fracture it off the hip bone," says Dr. Baskin. "Many patients find that procedure painful, and some even complain that it hurts more than the original neck or back problem we're trying to fix."

Dr. Baskin believes the coral fusion is just as effective as using a person's own bone. "There is zero chance of rejection by the body, zero chance of transmission of disease (because it does not come from another human)," Dr. Baskin says, "and zero pain from the harvest because we don't do it."

That last characteristic was all it took to convince Lambert. A hip injury he suffered while playing high school football has caused him decades of pain and problems; two years ago he had hip replacement surgery.

"I didn't want to go through that kind of pain again," Lambert says.

Using microsurgery, Dr. Baskin placed the coral graft in Lambert's neck. The patient was discharged from the hospital the next day, and he says he has felt fine ever since. "I was off pain medication less than 24 hours after the surgery," Lambert adds. "I feel great."

Dr. Baskin says in many cases it takes six weeks for a spinal fusion (of either coral or bone graft) to become semi-solid. Like bone fusions in other parts of the body, it normally takes six months to a year for the graft to become one solid piece of bone.

Although the procedure has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the jaw, Dr. Baskin is examining its effectiveness in treating herniated discs, bone spurs in the neck and other neck- and back-related problems.

Methodist/Baylor is only one of three centers in the United States currently studying the procedure. Dr. Baskin says the coral procedure is widely offered throughout Europe and Japan, however.

To find out more about the study, call Baylor College of Medicine's department of neurosurgery at 713-798-4696.

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