Prosthetic discs are becoming increasingly popular for patients who have suffered from significant disc problems, but that doesn’t mean that they are appropriate for all applications. Every patient is different and faces different types of stress that will be placed on their spine following surgery, but few face the kind of pressure that Colonel Todd Hofford does – and that’s why the Air Force will be following his recovery so closely. Hofford is a fighter pilot, and is the first to have undergone prosthetic disc surgery and return to the cockpit of an F-15.
Hofford has been flying for years and has been rewarded with promotions leading to being named vice commander of the Air Force’s 142nd Wing. The pride of position comes at a cost that few civilians are aware of – the F-15 flights put tremendous pressure on the body, and that is particularly hard on the spine. As Hofford explains, “When regularly during missions pulling 9gs – it’s just a lot of wear and tear on your system.”
Fighter pilots frequently suffer herniated discs, and Hofford ended up with so much pain that he was faced with the choice between surgery and giving up flying entirely.
For Hofford, the typical procedure offered to pilots was not satisfactory. While most undergo spinal fusion procedures, which are considered the best for surviving an ejection, Hofford found that option limiting. Although it is sure to withstand a g-force of 12, it also provides only temporary results and leaves it necessary for patients to have repeated surgeries. Even more important to Hofford was the limited mobility that repeated spinal fusion lead to. “Over time, generally what happens is you’ve got to get fused again, and so now two more layers are fused and you’ve just got this robotic neck that doesn’t move,” Hofford said.
Intent on continuing in a career that he loved but also placing a high priority on quality of life, Hofford elected to have a prosthetic disc implanted. “My number one priority is my family,” Hofford said. “This life will be over and at the end of the day I’ve got my family and I want to be around for them for as long as possible.”
Though the choice of the cervical prosthetic disc may be one that is discussed between patients and their spine surgeons every day, for a fighter pilot it was notable. Hofford is the first among his peers to undergo the surgery and then return to the cockpit. Though the Air Force has expressed significant concern about whether a disc held in place by nothing but gravity could handle the pressure of an ejection, medical experts have assured them that there would be no problem, comparing the pressure favorably to what is endured by professional athletes.
Despite these assurances, the Air Force did not allow Hofford back into the cockpit for three years, long after his surgeon indicated that he would be fine. He is now being carefully watched and studied. His experience will serve as the guide for whether future pilots will have the same option.
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