Spinal fusion is surgery that is performed to connect multiple vertebrae in the spine so that motion between them is prohibited. This is necessary when a specific spinal condition calls for immobilization of that part of the spine so that pain relief can be achieved. Fusion is successful because it mimics the natural healing process of broken bones.
Spinal Fusion Surgery Process
When the surgeon performs the surgery, bone or a bone-like material will be placed in the space between two vertebrae. Screws, metal plates, and rods may be used to hold all of this together so that the bones can heal into one unit. The way the spine moves changes because the fusion of the bones and/or bone-like material immobilizes that part of the spine. This can increase the amount of stress that is on the vertebrae below and above the site of fusion, so degeneration can accelerate in other areas.
This increased rate of degeneration is something that your surgeon can address with you. It is very important to weigh the pros and the cons in order to make an informed decision about surgery. Nonetheless, spinal fusion has had a high success rate in relieving pain and returning people back to their everyday activities over time.
Reasons for Spinal Fusion Surgery
The reasons why a person may need to have spinal fusion surgery include:
- Broken vertebrae – Most of the time, broken vertebrae can heal on their own. If instability of the spinal column occurs, then spinal fusion may be needed.
- Spinal instability or weakness – The spine may become unstable if there is excessive motion between vertebrae. This is common with arthritis.
- Spinal deformities – Spinal fusion can correct deformities, such as scoliosis or kyphosis, an abnormal rounding of the spine.
- Spondylolisthesis – This spinal cord disorder causes a vertebra to slip forward to the point it sits on top of the vertebra below it. If nerve crowding or severe back pain occurs, spinal fusion can help.
What to Expect
The surgery is performed under general anesthesia. There are different techniques in which the surgery is performed so it is as minimally invasive as possible. It will include an incision, a bone graft made from bone extracted from somewhere else in your body, and the fusion of the graft and the vertebrae. The fusion takes time because it is based on the body’s natural healing. If there is a chance that good bone can’t be extracted from another place in the body or it isn’t necessary, a synthetic material will be used instead of a bone graft. This can speed up the fusion process.
Spinal Fusion Recovery
The hospital stay after spinal fusion surgery is only two or three days, depending on where on the spine the surgery was performed and the extent. There will be some pain and discomfort, but this can be managed with pain medication. Your doctor will tell you what you can or can’t do after the surgery because it can take several months for the bones to fuse together. You might have to wear a brace to keep the spine aligned, and physical therapy will teach you how to stand, walk, sit, etc. so that the spine remains aligned.