A new type of spine fusion promises a shorter recovery and less scarring for the tens of thousands of Americans who undergo surgery to alleviate lower back pain each year.
Billy Lucas, 51, has experienced all sorts of hazards in 30 years as a stuntman. He's flung, fallen and fought his way through such films as Terminator, Collateral Damage and True Lies as Arnold Schwarzenegger's stunt double.
"I'm living in a world of pain, and I'm just not digging it," Lucas said.
In 1994, Lucas injured his lower back. Over the years, no amount of therapy, surgery or medication has brought him quite back to normal.
"I don't want to throw the towel in. I want to keep being prolific and working as a stuntman," he said.
Lucas got interested, though, when he heard of a new surgery – a less invasive, spine-fusion treatment called axialif.
In the treatment, a surgeon makes a small incision by the tailbone. Then, looking only at continuous snapshots of X-rays, the surgeon guides his instruments to the lowest disc in the spine.
"You don't see what's going on inside. You have to really, in your mind, have a good idea of what you're doing and also be able to adapt to what you see on the X-ray machine," neurosurgeon Dr. Justin Paquette said.
The doctor replaces the bad disc with bone and protein, and then inserts a screw that will open up both the disc space and the nerve tunnels that are causing pain.
Doctors say axialif causes less blood loss, no scarring and has a shorter recovery time than a classic spine fusion surgery.
While standard spine surgery takes four hours, axialif takes only 90 minutes. It can even be done on an outpatient basis.
Lucas might never be pain free, Paquette said, but his health will substantially improve, and soon, he'll be back in the action.