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Peggy Killian’s Story

Cutting-edge back surgery restores patient's quality of life

It was during her second trimester of pregnancy that the dull pain began in Peggy Killian’s lower back. She attributed it to normal pregnancy aches. But, a couple months after her daughter was born, the pain was back and as the months went by it got more and more intense.

“I eventually went to Gundersen Health System for an MRI,” Peggy remembers. “They found I had a degenerative disc that was causing the pain.”

At the time, the pain wasn’t constant and Peggy could continue to lift her daughter, exercise, sit, stand and do all the normal things in life. But over the course of two years, her pain intensified to the point where she couldn’t do anything without pain.

“It was debilitating. I was in my early 30s and felt so old,” she shares. “I’m a legal assistant in La Crosse so I sit for a large part of my day and that was extremely painful. My commute to and from Winona was awful. If I stood, it caused pain. Sitting on a hard surface was excruciating. I had an active 2-year-old and I couldn’t physically keep up with her.”

Peggy knew she had to do something, so she went to see Gundersen neurosurgeon Drew Sullivan, MD. Dr. Sullivan suggested she try conservative therapies first, and she began working with Gundersen’s pain specialists.

“Every pain medication and therapy would work for a while, but it was always a temporary fix,” she says.

While Peggy was working with the pain specialists, Dr. Sullivan began performing a revolutionary new surgery in which the degenerated disc is replaced, easing patients’ pain and restoring their movement to virtually normal. The surgery is called disc arthroplasty, and it can be used in the back (lumbar) or neck (cervical).

“I’ve been waiting my entire 37-year career to be able to offer an option like this to patients,” Dr. Sullivan says. “In the past, the only surgical option for disc degeneration was fusion, which eliminates motion in that vertebra and takes away function. Artificial discs, on the other hand, are designed to restore motion. Disc arthroplasty is what I’ve wanted to do for patients for a long time. It’s truly giving people back their quality of life.”

Physicians in Europe have used disc arthroplasty for many years with great success, but both types of arthroplasty were only recently approved by the FDA for use in the United States. Shortly after clinical trials were completed and the FDA approved it, Gundersen was able to offer the procedures.

“Most patients who are candidates are younger—usually between 18 and 60 years of age and most are in their 30s or 40s. What’s nice is that, unlike an artificial knee or hip, these artificial disc devices are expected to last for many years because there is less wear and tear on them,” Dr. Sullivan explains. “We ask patients to take it easy for awhile so their bone can fuse with the device, but once that happens they have no restrictions.”

By November 2007, all other treatment options had failed for Peggy and the then-33-year-old knew surgery was a step she needed to take. Peggy noticed a difference almost immediately after the surgery. “Of course there was pain because it was a major surgery, but I was lying in the hospital bed on my back. That was impossible before,” she remembers.

She went on to say, “I feel fortunate to have had this surgery. If Gundersen didn’t offer it, I would still be miserable.”

Disc arthroplasty is a good option for many patients, but it’s not for everyone with neck or low-back pain. Each patient is evaluated very carefully by the Gundersen neurosurgery team.

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