Spinal Fusion surgery may not be as complicated as you think. Understanding the spine is incredibly important. Knowing how it works, how it is meant to feel, and how yours stacks up can be a great sign of how healthy your back is. But what if you are feeling pain? What if something does not feel like it should? A spinal fusion may be in your future.
WHAT IS SPINAL FUSION?
Spinal fusion is a procedure used to permanently connect two or more vertebrae in your spine so that there is absolutely no motion between them. The fusion uses techniques that mimic the normal healing process of broken bones.
Spinal fusion permanently corrects and may be used to improve stability, correct a deformity, or reduce pain. Your doctor may recommend spinal fusion to treat:
- Deformities of the spine: Spinal fusion can help correct spinal deformities, such as a sideways curvature of the spine (scoliosis).
- Spinal weakness or instability: Your spine may become unstable if there’s abnormal or excessive motion between two vertebrae. This is a common side effect of severe arthritis in the spine.
- Herniated disk: Spinal fusion may be used to stabilize the spine after the removal of a damaged (herniated) disk.
At each vertebral level, a disc and a pair of facet joints work together to provide a range of motion.
IF THERE IS PAIN AT ONE OR MORE LEVELS DUE TO DISC DEGENERATION, THE ADJOINING SEGMENTS CAN BE FUSED TOGETHER TO LIMIT MOTION AND STABILIZE THE SEGMENT.
Bone graft is used to fuse the segments; from the patient’s hip (autograft), from a cadaver (allograft), or a synthetic bone graft. Surgical approaches can be from the front (anterior), back (posterior), and/or a combination. A solid fusion occurs when two vertebrae mend or weld together, much like a broken bone healing in a cast.
Spinal fusion is generally a safe procedure. But as with any surgery, spinal fusion carries the potential risk of complications. Potential spinal fusion complications include:
- Poor wound healing
- Blood clots
- Injury to blood vessels or nerves in and around the spine
- Pain at the site from which the bone graft is taken.
WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT
The spinal fusion surgery is done under general anesthesia and can be done using a variety of techniques. The technique your surgeon uses depends on a few criteria including where the vertebrae are fused, the reason for the fusion, and in some cases, the health and shape of your body. Generally, the procedure involves the following:
- Incision: to gain access to the vertebrae being fused
- Bone graft preparation: the bone grafts that fuse two vertebrae may come from a bone bank or your own body, usually from your pelvis.
- Fusion: to fuse the vertebrae permanently, the surgeon places the bone graft material between the vertebrae. Metal plates, screws, or rods may be used to help hold the vertebrae together while the bone graft heals.
AFTER SPINAL FUSION
A hospital stay of two to three days is usually required following spinal fusion. Depending on the location and extent of your surgery, you may experience some pain and discomfort during your spinal fusion recovery. However, the pain can usually be controlled well with medications. After you go home, contact your doctor if you exhibit signs of infection, such as:
- Redness, tenderness, or swelling.
- Wound drainage
- Shaking chills
- Fever higher than 100.4 F (38 C)
Spinal fusion surgery is typically an effective treatment for fractures, deformities, or instability in the spine. But study results are more mixed when the cause of the back or neck pain is unclear. Even when spinal fusion provides symptom relief, it does not prevent you from developing more back pain in the future.
AFTER SPINAL FUSION
At the National Spine Health Foundation, we know that spinal surgery can be a scary experience. But we are here to help! Check out our Patient Journey and learn how you can become a Spinal Champion.