Damaged Spine Only Evident 20 Years After Injury, Thanks to 3D Printing and One Determined Man

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3D Print of Heathcotes Spine

3D Print of Heathcote’s Spine

Medical advancements are leading the way in prolonging life, reducing pain, and ultimately increasing the overall quality of living for the average person. It is technology such as 3D imaging and 3D printing that is making much of these advancements possible.

More than twenty years ago, a man named Paul Heathcote, who you may remember from a story we did on him last week, was the victim of a brutal assault. Heathcote has been complaining of pain ever since, yet doctors had not been able to tell him what was wrong. Unlike most people, however, he didn’t take his doctors’ diagnosis, or lack thereof, as a final answer.

“Since the assault, I have been complaining about aches and pains in my head, neck, shoulders, arms and experiencing pins & needles in both hands,” Heathcote tells 3DPrint.com. “Rather strangely the two same fingers on each hand sometimes go completely numb and stick together until I move my head around and I get feeling back in them. Once again, despite seeing several consultants and having numerous x-rays, scans and tests, the clinicians were unable to tell me what was actually causing my problems.”


Heathcote’s CT Scan
Heathcote knew that there was something wrong, and that he wasn’t exactly imagining that he was experiencing pain. So he did a 3D reconstruction of a CT scan that was taken of his shoulders, and noticed something quite strange about a piece of his 1st thoracic vertebra, but when he brought up his findings to a doctor, that doctor’s reaction was not what he had expected.

“I pointed out what I had seen and she told me it was ‘an old displaced fracture of the transverse process of my 1st thoracic vertebra,'” Heathcote explained. “Curiously she then decided that she didn’t want to see me again and discharged me from her clinic and back to my doctor.”

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Labeled diagram by Heathcote (left), 3D printed replica (right). The cervical spine from the rear. It shows the displaced fracture of the right transverse process of T1 (labelled) and the normal left transverse process (labelled) of the same vertebra for comparison.

Now Heathcote was starting to get a complex. While his findings did prove something was wrong, and the doctor backed him up, he was beginning to feel a bit hopeless. Then about a year later, he had a CT scan done of his complete cervical spine, in order to see if there was anything else the doctors had failed to tell him. After creating yet another 3D reconstruction, he noticed several more of what he thought were abnormalities of his spine. He proceeded to print off some images and take them, along with a copy of the CT scan, to his doctor. The doctor told him that it was now evident that he had sustained multiple avulsion fractures and subluxations of his cervical spine during the brutal 1988 incident. Heathcote was immediately referred to the spinal department at his local hospital.

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The avulsed tip of the C6 vertebra is where Heathcote’s neck was bent so far forward (severe hyperflexion) that the ligament attached to the spinous process has torn the tip off (avulsion fracture) the C6 spinous process and left it in the soft tissue. The abnormal C5 & C6 vertebra is where the severe hyperflexion has caused the 2 vertebra to crush together at the front damaging the bone and causing the abnormal appearance.

“I saw yet another consultant specializing in cervical spine problems,” Healthcote tells us. “The consultant confirmed my doctor’s diagnosis but told me that it was too late to do anything now. Surgery was not indicated and he discharged me from his clinic. The 3D print of my cervical spine that was done this year allows me to see all the fractures and subluxations the doctors identified in great detail. Knowing and being able to see what is actually causing my pain, means that I can attempt to manage my painful symptoms a little better, but things are still not good at all.”

Unfortunately for Heathcote, this technology was not available to anyone back in 1988, when the incident occurred. If it had been, more than likely doctors would have discovered the problem areas in his spine and elected to do surgery to repair these problems. Thanks though to Heathcote’s determination in not simply relying on doctors to diagnose his problems, and his knowledge of 3D technology such as 3D imagining and 3D printing, he can now at least try his best to manage his pain, and perhaps one day a solution will be had.

What do you think about Heathcote’s determination, and the doctors’ lack thereof? Discuss in the 3D printed cervical spine forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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