After months of controversy and speculation, hockey player Jack Eichel underwent artificial disc replacement surgery to repair the herniated disc in his neck. Days later, Chicago Blackhawks forward Tyler Johnson had the exact same surgery.
Though patients seen at our New Jersey back pain practice are enthusiastic at the idea of the revolutionary surgery, NHL players with herniated discs have always been treated with a surgery known as anterior cervical discectomy with fusion, or ACDF. That surgery, which has been practiced since the 1950s, is still performed for many patients, but since 2009 those whose condition allows it have been offered the option of artificial disc replacement or ADR. ADR offers shorter recovery times and better range of motion. Follow-up studies have shown that ADR patients also enjoy a reduced probability of needing additional surgery five to ten years later.
Though the choice between ACDF and ADR might seem obvious, Eichel ran into resistance for his preference from the Buffalo Sabres, where he had previously played as captain. The conflict led to significant discussion and negotiation, and eventually to him having been traded to a team that would allow the surgery. Tyler Johnson encountered no issues, as the Hawks allowed him to choose the surgery that he wanted.
Prior to Eichel being traded, a Denver surgeon who examined him and recommended the ADR procedure explained on a podcast that the newer surgery would provide a better outcome for the team and for the player. He pointed out that where ACDF surgery would keep him out of action for at least six months, disc replacement would allow him to return to training in six weeks and possibly to compete in practice in less than two months. He also said that while fusion would carry a 25% chance of needing an additional surgery in 10 years and more surgeries later, the artificial disc replacement was a “one-and-done” treatment that showed only 4.8% of patients needing additional surgery after ten years.
“This is one of those operations they wake up from surgery and they want to hug you. It is extremely effective. It is extremely safe,” said Dr. Chad J. Prusmack. “As a doctor, I’ve got to look at the whole picture. I don’t want to see Jack Eichel because we defaulted to a surgery he did not want … that when he’s 60 taking care of his grandchildren, he’s had fusions up and down the spine and maybe has difficulty swallowing, etc. It’s my job to make sure that he not only performs in a safe way but I have to be his advocate for that.”
Following last week’s surgeries, both players are expected to miss roughly three months of play time and are expected to return in early March.
If you are experiencing neck pain, the first step to relief is a consultation with our spine pain specialists in New Jersey. Contact our office today to set up a time for an appointment.