October 12, 2001

Balloons alleviate spinal pain

Featured Image

A balloon is inserted to raise the collapsed portion of the bone. Doctors deflate and remove the balloon, leaving a defined cavity that can be filled with bone cement. The smaller picture shows the damaged vertebra before the procedure. (illustration by Dominic Doyle)

Balloons alleviate spinal pain

For the past several months doctors at Vanderbilt University Medical Center have literally been placing balloons into patients’ backs.

The new procedure, called balloon kyphoplasty, has helped patients who suffer from vertebral compression fractures (VCF), usually caused by osteoporosis, to have relief from painful symptoms and to straighten the spine.

Doctors perform the surgery by creating a small incision, forming a narrow pathway into the broken vertebra. A tiny balloon is inserted and inflated to raise the collapsed portion of the bone. The doctors then deflate and remove the balloon, leaving a defined cavity that can be filled with bone cement.

“We have done all kinds of spine surgery,” said Dr. Tarek Elalayli, assistant professor of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, “but this is a very effective treatment for people with painful compression fractures.”

The procedure can take 30 minutes for each broken vertebra.

After surgery, patients usually experience immediate pain relief and quickly return to their daily activities. Patients normally go home the same day or the day after the procedure.

Depending on how long after the initial break, the procedure can help improve the patient’s height to where it was before the break, said Elalayli.

The procedure has few risks involved. The two biggest risks are usually associated with problems caused by anesthesia and neurological effects on patients.

“Risks are minimal considering how much benefit there could be,” said Elalayli.

The results with this procedure have shown excellent restoration of fractures less than four months old and have a better than 90 percent success in reducing the level of pain associated with the broken vertebra.

“Balloon kyphoplasty is a great procedure for elderly patients who get these compression fractures and have a lot of pain associated with it,” said Elalayli.

Without medical treatment, VCFs can potentially lead to decreased activity and additional bone loss, further increasing the risk of future painful fractures.

“Our goal is to try to help any patients with any back problems,” said Elalayli, “and this is a newer way to help people we previously were not able to help.”