A new treatment for slipped with disks it involves injecting a blob gel with alcohol in the vertebral column. Marine contractor and father of the two Robert Parke, 49, from Dumfries, was one of the first people in the UK to have it done.
Robert Parke, 49, has been suffering from paralyzing back pain since his teens
When I was in my teens, I occasionally suffered from low back pain. My doctor insisted that it hurt and gave me paracetamol.
The pain was intermittent for years – I might have it for a week or two and then a few months, so I just kept relying on pain killers to treat it.
But when I started to feel pain while driving at 9pm, I decided to see a chiropractor after a friend suggested it might help.
He said the symptoms sounded like I had a hernia, with the soft, gel-like substance splashing out into a disc in the back; it pressed against my sciatic nerve (which runs from the spine to the lower legs), causing the pain.
The chiropractic treatment provided relief for a few months and then I had to go back for another.
I also tried physiotherapy, which helped strengthen the muscles around my back, as well as acupuncture; both gave me temporary relief for three to six months.
I kept going – swallowing tablets and being treated regularly – but it gradually got so bad that on some mornings I was in so much pain and so stiff that I couldn't even bend to put on my socks and I had to ask my wife Tracy, to do it for me. As soon as I started to move, I started to relax and the pain and stiffness would disappear.
In the meantime I worked as a shipbuilder, where I had to inspect pipes and machines, so a lot of bending and crawling under equipment – all of which was a burden on my back.
I started to wonder if I could continue to work and start looking for sliding discs on the internet. Last year I came across a new treatment called Discogel – where they put an alcohol-filled blob of gel in the damaged disc in the spine.
The idea is that water escaping from a damaged disc is a major source of pain because it worsens nerves and causes inflammation. But I read that alcohol easily absorbs water, expels the nerves and eases the pain.
One of the big advantages for me was that the treatment did not involve major surgery, so I could be back to work within days instead of weeks.
Mr. Parke said that after more than 30 years of suffering from back pain, the new treatment has given him back his life (file photo)
I found a private clinic in London that offered the treatment and had it undergo local anesthesia in July 2018. The procedure lasted less than an hour and then I felt no pain – I didn't even have to take paracetamol – and got up the same day. I had some pain in my right leg, which meant that I couldn't sleep on my right side for the first few weeks, but this eventually ended.
However, I immediately had relief from the back pain. Now I can bend and squat more easily, without getting stuck, putting on my own socks and since then I have not taken any painkillers.
I regularly go for long walks, swim several times a week and do the do-it-yourself around the house. After more than 30 years of suffering, this has given me back my life.
Dan Plev is a neurosurgeon consultant at The London Clinic. He says:
Sliding discs hit about one in 20 people at some point in their lives. They can be activated by bending uncomfortably, lifting heavy objects, sitting for a long time or being heavily overweight.
The spine consists of 24 separate bones, called vertebrae, each stacked on top of each other.
Between them is a circular piece of fabric or disk. These disks have a tough outer casing that surrounds a gel-like substance, called nucleus pulposus, and water to keep it moist and flexible.
Problems arise when the outer cable is damaged.
This can happen due to an injury, such as a fall, that causes sudden, intense pain, but is more often due to the aging process, because the older we get, the less flexible the discs become and the greater the chance that they will be split.
Once damaged, the soft gel and water within the nerves in the spine put pressure – usually the sciatic nerve running from the base of the spine to the knee, causing painful pain in the leg. It is a gradual process, so liquid can leak years later.
Current treatment includes a combination of physiotherapy to mobilize the spine and medication to relieve pain.
Steroid jabs are often used to dampen inflammation, but the effects can decrease after a few months and the pain returns.
In about 80 percent of cases, a hernia eventually shrinks back from the nerve over a period of a few months as the water naturally dries up, reducing the pain.
But severe pain may require surgery to release the compressed nerve or remove part of the disc so that it no longer presses on the nerve. But this is a fairly large operation with a recovery period of six weeks.
The Discogel procedure takes less than an hour and is aimed at preventing major operations and speeding up the natural healing process by shortening the time a compressed disc needs.
It can do this because ethanol – the alcohol it contains – is hygroscopic, meaning that it easily absorbs water, sucks up the fluid that has leaked out of the disc, relieves pressure from the nerves and relieves pain.
First, the patient has an MRI scan to assess the extent of the damage. Then they lie on their front and they get a local anesthetic in the back.
The semi-solid liquid gel is injected slowly, a very small amount at a time, through a long needle into the damaged disc. I look at an X-ray screen to see where the gel is exactly.
Like alcohol, the gel contains cellulose – a fibrous material made from plants that is strong enough to provide structural support to reduce the risk of the disk collapsing further.
Once the gel is in the needle, the needle is withdrawn and the patient lays down for four hours to allow the gel to settle in place.
A 2018 study, published in the journal Pain Physician, looked at 33 patients with hernia who underwent treatment with Discogel and found that they had complete pain relief for at least a year after the procedure.
I have performed the Discogel procedure on 15 patients so far and only one saw no improvement in back pain. I believe it is a good alternative to major surgeries for many patients whose slide discs do not gradually improve with gentle exercises and self-care painkillers.
The Discogel treatment is private only and costs around £ 5,000
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