Pilot Back in Flight After Disc Replacement With Dr. Gregory Gullung

In 2007, while serving with the U.S. Air Force, Nathan Miller had a hard plane landing and sustained several spine injuries—multiple herniated discs in the neck and bulging discs in the back. What followed was years of interruptions to his ability to fly between surgeries and additional spinal issues. 

In 2012, Nathan’s neck health deteriorated. He experienced arm paralysis and had an emergency surgery of a double-level fusion. He lost 15 to 20 percent range of motion and was not able to get back in flight until seven months later.

Back in the air again, Nathan hit turbulence during a flight and his back went out, and in 2016, Nathan had another surgery on his lumbar spine.

After recently retiring from the U.S. Air Force, Nathan has been a private pilot for some time, but his neck and back problems were persistent. 

“Those problems with my neck and back interrupting my flying as a pilot might actually be behind me for the foreseeable future thanks to Dr. Gullung and OrthoAlabama Spine & Sports,” said Nathan.

After researching and seeking care from fellowship-trained spine surgeon Dr. Gregory Gullung, Nathan underwent two more surgeries. These were unlike his previous procedures, including spine fusions in the neck and a disc removal in his back which led to fused vertebrae which all contributed to additional degeneration to his surrounding spinal structures. 

“After 13 years of dealing with this, I was at the end of the road with it,” said Nathan, who had once again begun experiencing neck and back issues. After Dr. Gullung performed a lumbar disc replacement in March and a double-level cervical disc replacement in May, Nathan was once again flying in July and having a successful fishing trip in August. 

“I’ve had five spine surgeries. If the first three had been artificial discs, I might not have needed the second two surgeries,” Nathan said. “I would’ve been flying more; I would’ve been more productive—I would’ve had a lot more effectiveness and had fewer injuries.” 

Nathan added, “My particular case really does address the pros and cons of the old methodologies that forced me to have more surgeries sooner versus the new methodologies, which are giving me a more permanent and better quality fix. In a single spine, you can compare and contrast laminectomy, discectomy, and fusion as well as two different types of artificial disc in both the lumbar and cervical spine.”

Spinal fusion and disc removal surgeries aren’t for everyone, but they can offer significant pain relief and functional improvement for many. Likewise, artificial disc replacement is better suited for certain patients. Dr. Gullung explained that “young, healthy, active people with good bone quality who want to protect other levels of the spine are good candidates for disc replacement. 

“Some types of spine deformities are a contraindication,” added Dr. Gullung. “If someone has a generally normal-looking spine that has disc herniations or some mild degeneration that’s causing problems, those people are excellent candidates. Collegiate, professional, and weekend warrior athletes, those kinds of people are who really benefit a lot from this type of technology.” 

On the features of artificial disc replacement, Dr. Gullung said, “The main benefit is keeping mobility. The second benefit is that, in keeping that mobility, you can protect the levels around that. Whenever you fuse something, it puts stress both above and below that area, so if you give that area some motion, it protects those other areas. There’s been data that shows that it decreases the amount of breakdown on those adjacent levels.”

Compared to spinal fusion procedures, recovery from an artificial disc replacement can also have significant differences. 

“With a fusion, you have to wait for bone to completely fuse across the disc space,” said Dr. Gullung. “An artificial disc replacement recovery is generally 8 to 12 weeks. For a fusion, it is generally 9 to 12 months.”

“I really hope that my case can help others,” said Nathan.

If you suffering from chronic back or neck pain or limitation and are interested in learning about the treatment options that are right for you, schedule an appointment with Dr. Gullung at OrthoAlabama Spine & Sports by calling (205) 228-7600, or request an appointment online.