February 8, 2023

Heal Your Disc, End Your Pain: Gregory E. Lutz, MD

When you live with back pain, you live with equally unbearable side effects, anxiety, depression, fatigue, feeling hopeless. You’re fighting a daily battle, impossible to articulate and difficult to see.

Welcomed back to the Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Hussein Al-Baiaty, and my next guest is Dr. Gregory Lutz, who is here to talk with us about his dedication to finding a healing method that truly works and is here to celebrate his new book, Heal Your Disc, End Your Pain, let’s dive into it.

Hello, everyone, thank you for joining me today. I am here with Dr. Gregory Lutz, and I’m super excited because this man’s work is amazing. It’s around healing something that we all at some point go through. Dr. Lutz, thank you so much for joining me today.

Dr. Gregory Lutz: It’s a pleasure to be here today. Thanks for having me.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Absolutely. So I want to start off by giving our audience just a little bit of a personal background, perhaps where you’re from, where did you grow up and how you got into this medical profession?

Dr. Gregory Lutz: So I grew up in north Jersey in Wayne, actually, and you know, my father was a physician and my mom was a nurse, and so he had a home office, and so we were exposed to the medical profession from a very young age, and you know, it was nice to see, you know, my dad and my mom helping patients, and I think it left a great imprint on all of us and actually, you know, all my siblings are also physicians. So I think you know, we all had a – it all had a profound effect on all of us.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, that’s so beautiful. You know, you kind of talk about that a little bit about how your mother was also just an exceptional cook, and they like to host even other physicians and doctors, and it seems like you were just very much emerged in that world.

What was something that your dad perhaps or mom, early on, kind of really honed in on and taught you? Something maybe it could be a characteristic, it could be a personality trait, something that they helped you really hone in on.

Dr. Gregory Lutz: Well, you know, I think both of my parents were very giving people, and I think that they always spoke about medicine in such high regard, has such a noble profession, and you know, the continual learning that goes on with medicine was something that they really cherished and valued. You know, it’s a lifelong learning, and I think education was really, you know, highly valued in our family.

Back Pain Is an Epidemic

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That’s so profound, and I just appreciate that because I grew up a refugee here in America, but like, you know, I remember my parents unfortunately, they didn’t get past high school, but to them, education was certainly everything, but they taught me the many characteristics that could help in education was the added bonus, right?

And you’re 100% right in that, it’s this idea of forever learning, but when you learn it at such a young age from parents who really, you know, not only like, push it on you, right? It’s one thing if your dad really wanted you to be ad doctor, but he was a mechanic or something, and then that happens too. It’s a whole other thing when the whole atmosphere around you in that environment really cultivated that.

So I thought that was really beautiful, and it kind of led you down this path. You know, you went towards, obviously, you know, pursuing this medical profession, but there was something that you have – you discovered throughout your work, was this idea, you know, this back pain world, I call it the world because I’ll be honest with you Dr. Lutz, like I don’t know anybody…

You know, maybe with the exception of a very few minimal people that don’t have or suffer from or talk about some sort of back pain. I know I have and I learned a lot of like stretching techniques and things, but even with that, you know, it still bothers me every now and then, but how did you fall into that niche specifically?

Dr. Gregory Lutz: So you know, like you said, it’s such a common problem, and even in medical school, they would say the patient has low back pain, and yeah, that’s a symptom. It’s not really a diagnosis, and there’s no other area of medicine where you would say, the patient has lung pain, you know? They have pneumonia, they have a specific condition, you know?

And so I felt like it was kind of like an area that was like a little bit of a pioneer field because the treatments that we were offering patients were not working that well, and I felt there was something missing on the diagnostic side and certainly on the therapeutic side, and so it intrigued me, and when I was practicing, a lot of the other doctors didn’t want to see the patients with chronic low back pain.

I felt like I could offer patients, at the very least, for being a rehabilitation specialist, you know, how to take care of their bodies, to at least eliminate some of the pain through exercise, and then, as I learned some of the interventional procedures, we would guide precise injections of steroid around inflamed nerves and disks and that would give patients really good pain relief at least temporarily so they can get into a rehabilitation program.

And then there was only later, maybe over the past 15 years when I started to hear more and more about regenerative medicine and that stuff I really learned from the vets, the veterinarian physicians that came to our farm and it was not really through my practice or my hospital I was affiliated with. It was really outside of medicine that I started putting two and two together that this could really make a good impact and something that’s the number one cause of disability in the world, it’s not just in the US, it’s worldwide like you said. It’s so prevalent.

So that’s really where I felt like I had tremendous experience seeing these patients for about 20 years, but I wasn’t getting to the root cause, you know? I was putting the fire out, or making them feel better temporarily, and it was only when we started doing these procedures of intradiscal PRP did we see people turn the corner for good, you know? And they just dropped off the medical treatment plan, and that was really profound, and so that’s why in this book is really an effort to kind of educate the public about an option that many don’t know is out there.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: No, that’s so powerful because this idea, again, it was something I feel like happen to you at a very young age, which was like just always be learning, right? Even though that you’re in this path, you open up to other ideas that could potentially help your patients.

It wasn’t just a matter of, “Okay, let’s just do what we normally do,” thought of different ways and having this idea of, you know, when the vet came and worked on your whatever, animals, there’s something that clicked and started realigning, and for you, that was really powerful, and I know you talked about these patients that you had at like early on in your career. I believe you named her Beth.

She had gone through like two surgeries, and there was like an exception amount of pain that she was suffering through, and I feel like you talk about how you sort of carried her story. I feel like that that sort of helped your narrative in really wanting to help people with this lower back issue and obviously, it’s huge issues.

So it’s one that I definitely agree with in the sense of like, a lot of treatments just — I know my brothers have, specifically one of my oldest brothers, he suffered a lot from back pain and so, he got hooked on opioids and so on and so forth, and I know you talk about that as well, but it sounds like you found a way down to that root cause.

Can you break down a little bit about whether it’s your working pattern or all of these things, you have back pain now, and for you, your thing was the root cause can be eliminated with X, Y, or Z or prevented, and I love that because it’s again, something that you don’t talk about when you’re with your doctor. You just have lower back pain, but you talk about this root cause that causes this pain. Can you share about that a little bit more?

Dr. Gregory Lutz: So there are like many causes of back pain, and so part of the challenge as a spine specialist to hone in on, you know, what are the most likely or the exact cause of back pain. Over 50% of back pain is from a problem with a spinal disc, and the discs are the cushions that are in between each vertebral body, the bones, or the spine that keep it flexible and keep it able to move and load bear and give you the ability to stand upright and twist and turn and do your daily activities and sports.

So you know, we essentially, have a structure that is somewhat flawed. Like in other parts of your body, if you cut your skin, or you know, tear the skin, your blood supply is readily available to bring healing cells directly to the skin, and the tissue regenerates in most cases, beautifully, like it never happened, and so the problem with the spinal discs is that basically, they have a gelatinous core, which is called the nucleus pulposus and then surrounding the jelly to keep it contained are 15 to 25 circular fibrous bands.

And that portion of the disc is called the annulus fibrosis, and think of it as like a circular tendon. So when that tears from trauma or overuse or whatever injury occurred, the likelihood of that healing is very poor, and as that tear propagates, then people can start to experience pain, and there’s varying degrees of pain. There’s pain that’s episodic or there’s pain that becomes chronic.

It can involve your lower back, it can involve your legs, a combination of both, and if keeps tearing and then the jelly extrudes, that’s called a herniated disc, and then you could have severe leg pain and weakness, and so the idea of the disk is just the structure that needs to be healed is kind of a paradigm shift because none of the treatments, there’s no drug, there’s no surgery that heals the inside of the disc.

So that’s one major root cause is let’s just think of it as an unhealed wound, and like any wound, when it tears, it can become infected with bacteria, and I think this is where I think, we might be killing two birds with one stone with our intradiscal PRP because the type of PRP we use also has a very high content of not just platelets but also white blood cells, leucocytes and we’ve seen a big difference in outcome when we use what’s called a leucocyte rich PRP versus a leucocyte poor.

So I really do believe that these tears are often infected with overgrowth of bacteria, and that causes exquisite pain for patients that just doesn’t get better with the traditional treatments, and so you can understand why taking Advil would not be a cure, why just exercise alone would not be a cure and why surgery would not be a cure.

You have to address the underlying path of physiology of trying to heal the tear and get rid of the overgrowth of bacteria, and that’s where precisely injecting a high concentration of your own platelets and white blood cells seems to have a profound effect, and it’s such a simple, elegant solution to a very major problem.

So and that’s basically the book in a nutshell. It’s like use your own cells to heal your disc and then get on with life. This shouldn’t be nothing more than a hiccup in life, and it’s really been a wrecking ball for so many.

What You Need to Heal Is Already Inside of You

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Dr. Lutz, I got to be honest with you man, I mean, I think you’re probably the first doctor I’ve ever spoken to about, you know, what happens in the back and like how to think about it. You’ve really simplified it, you know, by just saying, “Look, here’s tear, what happens to your skin when you tear” you know it’s like, your body has the systems, the things that need to go to where they need to be to heal that part of the body.

It’s like, if you apply that idea to this area of the body that I guess, you know, from my – this is not my world by any means, so I’m just really dumbifying here, but it sounds like this area of the body, the spine doesn’t get the amount of blood perhaps that it shoulder because of that injury or whatever it may be and you are coming in, you’re taking the blood out. You do this procedure where you spin the blood to separate the healing properties.

I am assuming, again, I’m really dumbifying here, and then you inject it back into the area where we need that help from our own structural systems that are already built in to do the healing for us. That perspective just makes so much sense, and you’re right, it is simple, it’s elegant. Obviously, it’s very sophisticated and hard on your end as far as being a physician and how you apply it and all these beautiful things.

You even shared a really cool story around, before you had started performing this with patients with back pain. You talked about this patient who you basically tried this trial out on their Achilles heel, I believe?

Dr. Gregory Lutz: Achilles tendon, yeah.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Achilles tendon, I‘m sorry. You know, that was just such a powerful thing because it was like two or three months later, if I read that correctly, and it was like, that person was feeling really good. The tear was getting better, and like a year later, they were playing tennis. Can you tell a little bit about that story because I thought that was really profound?

Dr. Gregory Lutz: Yeah, and you know, these are things like when you look back, and you feel like there’s a little bit of destiny here because I had just seen some of our vets inject a horse of ours, he was lame for months and then within three weeks, he started running around the pasture like a pony, and you know, the vets would come to the barn, they would take the horse’s blood. They would spin it in the centrifuge, and it just inject it in the slot in the ultrasound like it was very simple.

And the vet, his name is Dan Kennin, told me, “You know, you should look into this for your own patients.” And I said, “No, yeah, this is really interesting.” And I did some homework on it. I looked at the publications that backed the science, and it was a little bit rudimentary, but it was very safe. It’s just taking your own stuff and using it in a way that it’s meant to be used. So I ordered a PRP kit for my office in New York.

The day it came in, this patient comes in and he was in his early 70s, was a very successful hedge fund manager who had already invested in a PRP company. So he kind of knew what PRP was, and he said, “You know, I tore my Achilles tendon, I love tennis, I don’t want surgery, I’ve seen some complications, and I want to try to heal it with PRP, and I hear you’ll do anything.”

He said, “I will not do anything, but I will do this, let’s try it.” He and I did not know whether it would work. So we did the standard PRP kit, we spun it. It takes about 15 minutes, you take his blood, you spin it for 15 minutes, and then like you said, it separates the cells based on their specific gravity.

So the red blood cells go to the bottom of the tube and then on top of that are the platelets and white blood cells and plasma, and then you just suck out the plasma and concentrate the platelets with the white blood cells into maybe two or three teaspoon and then under ultrasound, we just injected it directly to, you know, his Achilles tendon tear. So you know, we didn’t know what was going to happen.

That was the very first patient I ever did, and that was back in 2008, and so he came back a month later almost pain free. When I saw him the first time, he was in a boot limping around for six months. So he said, “No, it feels much better.” And so I said, “Well, you know I looked at that under ultrasound, it wasn’t fully healed, but it looked better.” I said, “Let’s do it again.” So we did it again, and then within a few months, he was back on the –

It wasn’t a year, he was out back on playing tennis. He had not played tennis for over six months, and he was back on the tennis court playing, and I said, “Well, let’s look at the MRI and just see. Is it just pain relief, or did it actually heal?” And when we did the MRI, it was completely healed, no tear, it looked completely normal in a 73-year-old, and so it was like that was my first case, so that was really eye-opening to say the least because you never see Achilles tendon tears heal.

They always go to surgery for the most part, and his tear was like over 70% of the diameter of the tendon.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, that’s what I found really interesting too, it was on his – I mean, he was basically prone for surgery.

Dr. Gregory Lutz: So when you get that kind of first out-of-box experience, so we didn’t start in the disc, we started with tendons. So we would do Achilles tendons, patellar tendons, rotator cup tendons, gluteus medius tendons, and almost everybody was getting better like it was very rare that people to not have improvement. It was one of the best procedures I’ve ever did in my whole medical career. It was that gratifying.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That is so powerful, and to just hear you talking about it, I mean, it sounds like it was a very, like a turning point in your own life and career.

Dr. Gregory Lutz: Right, because the tendon is similar to the disc. It has poor blood supply, it doesn’t heal well, you can’t really inject steroids into it or it will weaken the tissue and cause rupture within, and it just seemed like we were sending too many people for surgery for tendon disorders let alone, you know, final fusions for disc disorders and so what’s interesting is the same collagen that makes up a tendon makes up the outer rings of the disc.

Type one collagen, and so I said, “You know, if it has that much of an effect on a tendon, maybe it could work on a spine inside the disc.” But that is obviously a much more dangerous place to inject things, and so we decided that, you know, if we tried a few patients and we started seeing some good results. So then we said, “Well, let’s do it under what’s called an IRB,” which is an Institutional Review Board on the research protocol.

We did set it up with using like the best study design that we can use, which is a double-blind randomized control trial, and so that’s where it really came out of our sports medicine practice treating tendon disorders first because, you know, we felt like that was a more comfortable place to start.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: That is so powerful, and like your ability to connect the two and then furthering your work as you progress this new way of doing some. Well, perhaps not a new way of looking, at doing something, but maybe it was. I am not a 100% sure in the medical world, but it sounds like it was just a different way of doing it, and you came on and you started introducing that.

So what was it like to do that for your first patients to help them out with their disc? What was that experience like?

Dr. Gregory Lutz: I mean once, you know, like in this study, we used a PRP system that was concentrating the cells to maybe five times your baseline platelet concentration, and it was so rigorous like the design that if a patient got better it was clearly from the PRP because each patient was so well selected and then, what we showed was that in this one study of about 50 patients, the treatment group has statistically significant higher improvement in pain and in physical function and patient satisfaction compared to the control group.

So that is pretty convincing, and then we followed those patients for overtime, and we were able to get over 70% follow-up at five to nine years after that single procedure, and the majority of patients were still better from one single injection of PRP.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: One injection? This is so amazing.

Dr. Gregory Lutz: One injection, and so like I said, patients that the average pre-procedure symptom duration of these patients was four to five years. So these were patients that had been through many injections, many epidural steroid injections, many physical therapies, and they were looking at a spinal fusion, and all of them were candidates for fusion and only six out of the 50 went onto a fusion.

So it was a big change, and that was first out of box technology. Now, what we are putting in to disc is the concentrations of platelets are like 20 times your baseline with really high white blood cell counts, and we’re putting them in precisely into tears using a catheter. So now our success rate is approaching 90%. So I think what we’ve done overtime is just say, “Okay, if five times baseline worked, how did 10 times baseline, how does 20 times baseline?”

Because we don’t know the upper limit, but you know, the system, we created a new PRP system that can concentrate sometimes up to 40 or 50 times baseline. So we are just studying the effects. There is probably an upper limit, but we haven’t seen it yet.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: This is what’s really powerful, okay, I got to commend you because this work is just – I mean, you know it’s a hook. You read a lot of things, you talk a lot about, especially with what I do in these conversations, there is so many remarkable people that come on the show, but your specific work, your scenarios, your stories that you are telling me right now and then in line with what I know about the world as far as back pain in general, is just this direct connection to hope.

Like there is absolute hope to helping someone who has severe back pain, and it is preventing them from just living life. It could be picking up a kid. It could be, you know, just driving, moving around. I just have seen what it’s done to my brother, to be honest, this is first-hand experience, and you know, he’s had multiple injections and the steroids and all that stuff, and you know, he’s always just like, “Man, dude, nothing works.”

Like workout, make sure your back is strong. You know, he is always giving me those advice, and I love that, and I appreciate that, but what you are talking about is so powerful in the sense of like you’ve dedicated the last 15 plus years to honing in on this very beautiful, simple, elegant way of approaching and healing, and I think that’s the most powerful I think word we can use in this discussion is that this is a healing ideology not necessarily just a preventing or going into surgery is so – I can’t fathom going into surgery for back pain.

I just, you know, just being out for weeks. I just got to commend you, man, it’s amazing what you’re doing, and I love to hear that you are taking this into like more of a broader sensibility and educating others and writing a book about it. Can you share a little bit about sort of the, you know, these innovations and what the future looks like for people who suffer through this back pain and how you intend to help educate other physicians?

Dr. Gregory Lutz: So you know, like you said, like historically, all of our treatments are focused on more symptom modifying therapies. Well, all along what we really needed were structured modifying therapies like intradiscal PRP, things that created the healing and what’s nice is in our office we have an MRI, we can do an MRI anytime we want, and we have hundreds of patients now that just show their tears healing.

So what we have seen on a more consistent basis is like there’s about 50 different types of PRP systems that are commercially available, but none of them were specifically designed to treat degenerative disc disease. What we did was we spoke with, they call it operating equipment manufacturer, so an OEM. An OEM makes devices, and I had a very good relationship with a company in Boston called Ranfac.

You know, Barry Zimble is their chief operating officer, and Barry is the nicest guy. He wants to make a buck, he wants to do it with making an impact. So you know, to develop he and Andy, Miguel Cody, who is the owner of another company collaborated with me on making a PRP system that could concentrate the platelets in the white blood cells to higher concentrations than the best PRP systems in the market.

So it’s really just basic math, in order to get higher cell counts, you just have to take larger volumes and concentrate to lower levels, and so you need systems that can handle a higher volume of blood, and so they designed a very simple system and sure enough produces 30, 40% higher cell counts than the leading competitor. So that was an innovation that has definitely translated into improved outcomes.

Then the traditional way of putting PRP or anything into a disc is using a straight needle technique. The way you have to approach the spine to avoid the nerves is to come in from the side at an angle and invariably, you would end up more in the middle of the disc, which is called the nucleus, and so when you inject, you would have to have tears that communicated with the nucleus to get good flow into the annulus.

So we designed this needle system, a catheter that’s made of Nitinol, which is a flexible metal, and it has a preset curve, and so you can stick a straight needle into the disc and then, you know, really in a very elegant way curve these catheter right into the back of the disc almost like a semicircle and just bathe the back of the disc where all the tears are with a super concentrated PRP and that procedure, we call disc heal, and it’s trademarked.

We are meeting with the FDA at the end of this month on a trial that we are proposing, and we will get feedback. If they give us the green light, then we’re going to take that, the combination of the super concentrated PRP with delivered with the catheter as the ideal way of doing this procedure, and so hopefully, the FDA will be reasonable, and we can go into a clinical trial to get a claim because that is the problem with a lot of these regenerative treatments.

It’s that they are all done in what is referred to as an off-label fashion. Like they are FDA approved devices, but they’re not approved for that specific purpose. So in my office, I could sit down with a patient and say, “Listen, I think this is what’s best for you.” But as a company, you can’t really promote it because you haven’t gone through the necessary regulatory steps to get the claim. Hopefully, we can get a claim and be the first company to treat degenerative disc disease with a biologic.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah. Well, I hope you know, not only do you get this, but it starts to become a widely accepted format for how to heal these disc, because let’s be real, this is like you said in your book as well, it is a pandemic. The back pain is just much a pandemic as COVID-19, right? It is probably worse because it’s lasted way longer. Thank you so much, Dr. Lutz.

Today, you know, you really expanded my mind about hope and possibilities, and you know, it’s like you haven’t even been busy doing anything. I mean, I don’t think your parents would be very proud of you. I think you have done incredible work, and you know, I am honored today to have just listened to you speak so eloquently about your work and your intention of helping people.

I think what a great thing to really wrap your arms around you and your team and your colleagues to not just identify these cures and identify how to heal but like really invest the time, resources, energy, you know, even creating the smallest of things, the right needle and the shape that it needs to be to you know, it is just beautiful. I think it is a work of art what you have been doing. So thank you so much, I commend you for that.

Dr. Gregory Lutz: Well, that’s great. That’s very kind of you, and you know, I really enjoyed the interview, and you know, you did a great job.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Thank you so much.

Dr. Gregory Lutz: So I hope we get the word out and let patients know that, you know, there is other solutions than drugs and surgery for their back pain.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I will absolutely be in touch, but I wanted to ask you one more question, if you don’t mind. If there is one thing you want people to walk away with from this book, your readers, your specific readers, what would that one thing be?

Dr. Gregory Lutz: The one thing that the audience should know is that, you know, back pain can be healed, and everything you need to heal is already inside you. It just has to be guided in the right spot, and that’s where we help.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Man, you are a wizard with words, let me tell you. I think that was so well put. Thank you so much Dr. Lutz for coming on the show and sharing your wisdom. The book is called, Heal Your Disc, End Your Pain: How Regenerative Medicine Could Save Your Spine, beautiful title. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you Dr. Lutz?

Dr. Gregory Lutz: I’m in New York City at the Regenerative Sports Care Institute. It is a private clinic that I founded about six years ago to offer these procedures in a more cost-efficient place than the hospital setting.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Can people find you on LinkedIn, reach out to you for questions if they have them?

Dr. Gregory Lutz: Absolutely.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Beautiful, all right. Well, thanks again for your time, much appreciated, keep going with your work. I know our world desperately needs it. So thanks again for spending your career doing this amazing work.

Dr. Gregory Lutz: Well, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you, and I really enjoyed the interview.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I appreciate it.