Spinal fusion surgery is one of the most common types of back surgery. We perform the spinal fusion procedure to correct specific problems in the spine. For many, it can be easier to look at spinal fusion surgery as welding of the spine. However, a spinal fusion procedure does not immediately weld the vertebrae together but instead helps the spine heal over several months by placing bone grafts around the damaged areas.
We typically recommend this type of surgery for people who have issues with one or more of the small bones in the spine. When there are problems with the bones in the spine, fusing them can provide more stability. By fusing the vertebrae, we encourage the spine to heal as the bones are permanently joined together into a solid bone.
What is Spinal Fusion Surgery
While we try to recommend various alternatives to surgery for those experiencing back pain, sometimes the only solution is spinal fusion surgery. Whether the pain is the result of regular wear and tear or an accident injury, this procedure could help. It’s designed to eliminate any pain you are experiencing while restoring stability at the same time. Because of how minimally invasive this procedure is, many patients can return to their normal activities quickly. As long as the orthopedic doctor can identify precisely where the pain is coming from, spinal fusion surgery can be very beneficial.
How the Procedure is Performed
There are several different approaches to spinal fusion surgery:
- Anterior (we access the spine from the front)
- Posterior (performed from the back)
In some cases, we use a combination of both approaches. However, spinal fusions today typically start with an incision in the back that exposes the spine. The surgeon will then cut through the muscles along the spine to gain access to the damaged vertebrae. The size of the incision will depend on the patient and the injury, all of which we discuss with you before the surgery.
Once the incision has been made, and the surgeon can view the area in question, spinal implants and bone grafts are placed to stabilize the spine and jumpstart the healing process.
Bone grafts are used in all spinal fusions to help the bones merge into one stable unit. The bone used for this graft can be harvested from different parts of the body or from a cadaver, in which the type of graft is called an allograft. Your surgeon will determine whether the bone should be taken from the site of the surgery, the pelvis, or a cadaver. In recent years, other materials have been developed to replace the use of actual bone. These include:
- Demineralized bone matrices (DMBs)
- Bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs)
- Synthetic bone
The type of bone graft used will depend on the patient and the surgeon’s recommendations. Please keep in mind that you may need to wear a brace following spinal fusion surgery to immobilize the area and ensure the bone graft works.
What to Expect from Spinal Fusion Surgery
Spinal fusion surgery is not the first line of treatment; we usually recommend it when all other options have been exhausted.
One of the most significant areas of concern for people needing fusion surgery is how soon they will be able to get back to normal. In the past, a spinal fusion may have kept you from doing what you love and getting back to your life, but thanks to advancements in modern medicine, this is no longer the case. Many patients are not only able to resume their normal lives, but they can function much better than they could before surgery.
Possible Complications and Warning Signs
As with any procedure, spinal fusion surgery has a handful of risk factors that should be taken into consideration. Some of these risks include:
- Pain or other complications at the site of the graft
- Excessive bleeding
- Nerve damage
- Blood clots
- Spinal fluid leaks
- Lingering symptoms
- Pseudarthrosis (this happens when there isn’t enough bone for the fusion to take)
After spinal fusion surgery, you must follow Dr. Atwater’s post-operative instructions to have the best and most successful outcome. Although the operation is safe, there is, of course, the potential for complications, as mentioned above. There are also a handful of warning signs that could indicate there was a problem with the surgery. Some of the warning signs of these complications include:
- Blood clots – Pain, tenderness, or swelling in the calf, foot, or ankle
- Infection – Redness, tenderness, or swelling around the surgery site, chills, fever, discharge from the closure
Typically, complications will arise within the first couple of weeks following the surgery. If you notice any of these warning signs or if you have any questions about your spinal fusion, please do not hesitate to contact OSA today. We’ll help you prepare for what to expect before, during, and after the procedure.
Spinal Fusion Surgery Recovery
Albeit typical, spinal fusion surgery is not an easy surgery and typically comes with a lengthy recovery period. This is something to keep in mind before moving forward with the surgery, as many people find the recovery rather challenging. However, each patient is unique and may have a different experience following fusion.
Most people experience some level of discomfort in the days and weeks after the procedure, and patients typically stay in the hospital for one to five days. Proper pain management is critical, especially in the days immediately following the procedure. Once released, the rehabilitation process can begin! Physical therapy is one of the most common and effective types of treatment and can drastically improve the recovery process following spinal fusion surgery.
Spinal fusion surgery is often recommended for patients experiencing pain and discomfort due to degenerative disc disease, fractures, infections, scoliosis, spinal stenosis, and tumors. If your quality of life is suffering because of back pain, it may be time to consider this procedure. Back pain is not only uncomfortable, but it can wreak havoc on both personal and professional aspects of your life.