What is Spinal Fusion?
The spine is made of a column of small bones known as vertebrae. Spinal fusion surgery welds together two or more vertebrae in the spine to reduce motion in the section that causes pain from arthritis, injury, disease or degeneration.
Spinal fusion surgeries have been performed for more than 50 years; however recent developments in minimally invasive techniques, computer navigation and robotics have made the procedure less invasive, safe and more precise with a faster recovery. Most cervical fusion cases can be performed on an outpatient basis with patients recovering at home and moving about on the same day. Thoracic and lumbar spinal fusions for the mid and lower back usually require a hospital stay of two to four days, depending on the location and complexity of the condition. In addition to spinal fusion, a neurosurgeon may also recommend a procedure known as a laminectomy, during which damaged bone or tissue is removed to relieve pressure on a nerve.
Spinal fusion surgery is recommended after conservative treatments, such as NSADs, physical therapy and injections have failed to provide lasting pain relief. Spinal fusion may be used to treat a number of back and neck problems, including:
- Degenerative disc disease
- Spondylolisthesis (dislocated vertebrae)
- Spinal deformity such as scoliosis or kyphosis (curvature of the spine)
- Broken or fractured vertebrae
- Herniated disk
During a spinal fusion procedure, neurosurgeons will decompress the nerves and replace a damaged disc (disectomy) with a bone graft and synthetic cage to establish a normal level of space between the affected vertebrae and nerve channels and stimulate the parts to fuse into a single, solid bone. The surgeon then attaches a scaffold using a plate, rods, wire and/or screws to hold the affected vertebrae in place during the healing process.
Depending on the nature and location of the spine disorder, neurosurgeons will use one of three approaches to perform the procedure. The anterior approach requires a small incision through the front or side of the abdomen to reach the lumbar region or through the front of the neck to reach the cervical spine. With the posterior lumbar approach, a small incision is made in the middle of the lower back; posterior cervical fusion is performed through the back of the neck.
Patients tend to feel better in less time than it takes for the bone fusion to become solidly formed. Post-lumbar surgical patients should avoid bending or lifting until they are cleared by the surgeon. All spinal fusion patients should call their physician if they develop sharp, stabbing back or neck pain, numbness or pain radiating through the lower back into the legs or down the arm, and/or spasms. It is important for patients to follow a physical therapy rehabilitation program to make sure the spine stays in alignment throughout the entire healing process. Full recovery from cervical fusion can take from three to six months. Lumbar fusion can take from six months to a year to heal completely.
If you experience prolonged back or neck pain that radiates down a limb, consult with a board certified neurosurgeon to learn if spinal fusion is an option for you. Schedule a consultation.
The neurosurgery team at ONS is ranked among the best in the nation.