Spinal Fusion: aka Low Back Surgery, Cervical Surgery, Back Surgery, Disc Surgery, Vertebrae Surgery, Fusion Surgery
What is it?
Spinal surgery is typically a surgery to help correct problems that exist in the spinal column or vertebrae of the spine or back. While not for everyone, if you do have degenerative changes in the spine including degenerative disc disease, arthritis, slipped discs and other problems, you may find spinal fusion or low back surgery a relatively good option for restoring some functionality and reducing pain in the spine.
This purpose of the surgery is to help stabilize the back or spinal column. The idea behind the surgery is that by fusing together two or more vertebrae, it may be possible to help heal injuries that have occurred in the spinal vertebrae and help relieve degeneration that may have occurred in the cushioning disc between some of the vertebrae. Some refer to this damage as a slipped disc.
Spinal fusion may also help relieve scoliosis which is a curvature of the spine or instability of the spinal cord. Some patients report they feel better although they still experience some achy pain in their lower back following spinal fusion surgery. Keep this in mind when you talk with a health professional about fusion surgery.
A spinal fusion procedure would eliminate any movement between each of the vertebrae sections of the spine. Because the abnormal sections of the vertebrae are often responsible for pain, the idea is that surgery will stop deformity of the spine and help relieve pain and reduce further degeneration.
Alternatives to Surgery
Other options may include regular physical therapy and chiropractic care, use of a TENS unit which stimulates the muscles in the spine by providing small electric shocks to the muscles (this does not hurt) and other forms of natural therapy. Some people find pool therapy and light exercise helpful for relieving the pain associated with spinal problems, although therapy will not reverse degenerative damage that has already occurred within the spine.
Before the Operation
Before a spinal fusion a doctor may take material from the vertebrae in what is called a bone grafting procedure. Usually what happens is the doctor takes small pieces of bone and places then in the space between each vertebra the doctor plans to fuse together. Then the doctor will harvest bone from other places in the body to promote fusion. Once this happens the bones have to become stabilized to allow fusion to occur. Usually casting or the use of rods or screws can promote this.
After the Operation- At Home
Rest and care not to move too quickly or in a manner that will upset the recently fused spine is important to promote proper healing. External bracing will also help immobilize the spine. You will need to ride home in a reclined position and will likely experience a good deal of pain in the first couple of weeks following surgery. You will need a follow-up appointment to have sutures removed following surgery, usually about two weeks after surgery.
It is common for patients to lose their appetite shortly after surgery. Some patients also lose a bit of energy following surgery, but it is important in the weeks following surgery that you try to get up and around to improve your strength and stamina. Things you should be on the lookout for after surgery includes:
- Unusual swelling, especially in the lower leg or ankle and foot
- Tenderness and redness in the leg
- Redness and tenderness around the wound or surgical site
- Drainage from the wound that is pussy or foul smelling
Possible complications can include increasing pain or problems with the fusion itself. Some patients will not realize ample relief of pain from the spinal fusion procedure. Individuals that have lower back pain that extends in to the buttocks and leg or those experiencing numbness and tingling are most likely to respond to this treatment, but not everyone does.
Other risks or rarer complications may include:
- Possible risk of sepsis or blood infection
- Risk of stroke or heart attack if you are already in an at-risk population
- Blood clots
- Repeated herniated discs after the surgery
- Decreased intestinal ability or function
- Incontinence, although this is usually temporary following surgery
Spinal fusion can help reduce the pain and discomfort associated with degenerative changes in the vertebrae. Your doctor will evaluate your spine and determine whether you are a good candidate for spinal fusion surgery. If you are you may consider surgery, as the risk for complications is generally low. Some of the more common problems may include problems urinating following surgery and an increased risk for infection in the weeks following surgery.
Estimated Costs for Spinal Fusion
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