3D printing: A game changer for surgeons and your health

Medicine has come a long way in the past decade, and orthopaedics is no exception. Today, 3D printing is revolutionizing the field of orthopaedic surgery, and bone fusion patients are reaping the greatest benefits. Four years ago, orthopaedic surgeons like myself were introduced to state-of-the art technology called the Nexxt Matrixx®, developed by Nexxt Spine. Nexxt Matrixx® is a porous, bioactive 3-D printed titanium that’s revolutionizing spinal fusion by providing more flexibility and encouraging bone growth post-surgery. 

What is 3D printing? 

If you’ve watched your inkjet printer spray layer after layer of color, you’ve already got a good grasp of the 3D printing process. Rather than spraying ink, the 3D printer sprays metallic dust that is activated by a laser. Just as a lathe is used to remove pieces of wood in a carving, the printer strips away metal to create the desired shape. The scientific community calls the process “additive technology,” but we call it a game changer in orthopaedics. 

The importance of 3D technology 

The history of hip replacements helps us better appreciate the value of 3D technology. In the surgery’s early days, countless hip failures were caused by cement breaking loose following replacement. As time went on, surgeons began to understand the necessity of a rough surface in promoting adhesion. Without cement the bone also could continue to grow, which improved longevity and outcomes. Increased surface porosity and mobility became the Holy Grail for orthopaedic surgeons, and non-cemented hips became standard care. In spinal surgery, the long-standing goal has been to perform spinal fusion without a bone graft, which allows patients to recover faster with less pain. 

Innovation in spinal spacers 

3D-printed spinal spacers are the latest innovation in spinal fusion, with a handful of manufacturers now competing with the marketplace. The cohesive spacers seem to have an incredible affinity for bone, thanks to high levels of porosity never achieved till now. A porous spacer allows the bone to grow completely through the 3D matrix rather than restricting bone growth, as was common in earlier spacers. Porosity also allows the body’s natural influx of proteins, hormones and stem cells to reach the surgery site, which promotes healing. As the bone heals and grows, the 3D spacer remains visible under x-ray and stays compatible with MRI and CT scans, which is highly important for spinal surgery patients. 

The future of 3D printing 

While still in its infancy, 3D technology has launched us light years ahead of medicine’s capabilities only a decade ago. Technology has begun to completely revolutionize all aspects of health care. Today, 3D products are being used to replicate everything from kidneys to cartilage, prosthetic parts to heart valves. In orthopaedics, researchers are anticipating big results in an area called bone-forming innovation, expected to enhance bone growth. There’s never been a more promising time for orthopaedic surgeons, or patients.   

About Dr. McNamara Michael McNamara, M.D., is a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon at the Bone and Joint Institute of Tennessee, located at Williamson Medical Center. Dr. McNamara specializes in spinal surgery and was among the first in the nation to implement the Nexxt Matrixx 3D printed spinal spacer. His office can be reached by calling (615) 791-2630.