The Reliability of Spinal Implants – The Jack Eichel Case

Category: Spine | Author: Stefano Sinicropi | Date: March 24, 2022

Ruptured Spinal Discs

Jack Eichel was once viewed as the potential face of the National Hockey League after being selected by the Buffalo Sabres with the second pick in the 2015 NHL draft, and while the 25-year-old has shown flashes of brilliance and has plenty of good years ahead of him, injuries have prevented him from reaching his true potential. His injuries have been more widely covered than a lot of NHL injuries because Eichel and team doctors disagreed about the best method of care, but the end result actually speaks to the reliability and durability of spinal hardware. Below, we take a closer look at Jack Eichel’s neck injury and how it speaks to improved spinal hardware.

Jack Eichels’ Injury And Recovery

Hockey is a very physical sport, and Eichel learned that lesson back in March of 2021 when he was hit against the boards. As a result of the hit, Eichel suffered a herniated disc in his neck. It became apparent quickly that Eichel would need to undergo surgery to fix the herniated disc, but there were some different opinions over what type of surgery he’d undergo.

Team doctors wanted Eichel to undergo a spinal fusion procedure. This type of operation helps to provide a lot of stability to the neck region, but it also limits neck mobility, something Eichel didn’t want to lose. Instead, Eichel wanted to follow the recommendation of the doctor who gave his second opinion, which was to undergo artificial disc replacement surgery – an operation that while wildly successful, had never been performed on an NHL player before.

Normally, patients have the final say in how an injury is handled, but that’s not the case in the NHL. Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, the team has the final say over how an injury is treated. Rarely is this an issue, but in this case, Eichel was insistent on pursuing an artificial disc instead of compromising his neck flexibility with a fusion operation. As a result of Eichel’s refusal to submit to the team’s recommendations, he was stripped of his captaincy and traded to the Vegas Golden Knights, who allowed him to undergo artificial disc replacement surgery in November.

The surgery was a success, and Eichel was back to skating only a month after surgery. He made his debut for the Knights in February, three months after he underwent the operation. Had he undergone a fusion procedure, he would have been sidelined for at least six months. Interestingly, three months after Eichel’s surgery, Chicago Blackhawks center Tyler Johnson became the second player in league history to undergo an artificial disc replacement operation. Johnson returned to the ice earlier this month after a three-month recovery, noting that he feels “unbelievable” since having the disc replaced with an artificial implant.

Implants Becoming More Reliable

Spinal hardware continues to become more durable and better mimic the movement of a healthy spinal disc, but these two surgeries really show how far the technology has come. Artificial disc replacement has been touted as a way to retain flexibility in the spinal column, but a fusion procedure has been championed as the more stable option with a decreased likelihood of future disc issues. It no longer seems that the benefits of added spinal stability outweigh the loss in flexibility when comparing the two procedures.

And while we have limited data on the long-term outcomes of Eichel and Johnson’s recovery following artificial disc replacement, the early results seem very promising, with shorter recovery times and no obvious drawbacks. Fusion, for decades seen as the standard procedure for significantly damaged spinal discs, may no longer be the default option.

Regardless of whether you’re an NHL-caliber player or you just want to pursue the optimal treatment for your disc issue, set up a consultation with Dr. Sinicropoi and his team. He’ll provide you with an individualized assessment, walk you through your options and answer any questions you might have to ensure you get the best care for your condition. For more information, or for help with your neck pain, give Dr. Sinicropi and the team at The Midwest Spine & Brain Institute a call today.

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