It’s important to be an informed patient whenever you are considering a major medical procedure like spinal fusion. Knowing the facts surrounding the surgery will help you accurately assess the benefits and risks. To help you become more aware of what this surgery entails, this article will explain spinal fusion in simple terms and share 5 spinal fusion facts.
What Is Spinal Fusion Surgery?
To understand what spinal fusion surgery involves, you will need to learn some basic human anatomy. The human body is supported by a spine, which stretches from the bottom of the skull to the tailbone. The spine protects the spinal cord and gives the body structure. Along the spine is a series of interconnecting bones called vertebra. They are responsible for protecting the body’s internal organs, providing stability, and facilitating movement. The vertebra are connected to one another at intersections call facet joints. These joints allow the vertebra to move relative to one another. This is how the spine can twist and bend. There are also spinal discs between the vertebra, which absorb shocks and prevent the bones in the spine from rubbing against one-another. Nerves from the spinal cord exit the spinal column at several points and travel to other parts of the body.
Unfortunately, there are a many injuries and diseases which can affect the health of the spine including:
- Herniated discs
This is a ruptured spinal disc. It can cause inflammation and place pressure on nearby nerves, causing pain.
This condition occurs when a vertebra slips forward relative to the next vertebra, causing pain and inflammation.
- Spinal stenosis
An abnormal narrowing of the spinal canal, which compresses spinal nerves.
- Spinal deformity
Conditions like scoliosis (curvature of the spine) and kyphosis (rounding of the upper spine).
- Fractured vertebra
Vertebra which have been damaged by injury or disease
Spinal fusion involves fusing two or more vertebra together using bone grafts in an effort to correct the injury or malformation that is causing pain. Surgical hardware can also be installed to help secure the joints. Here is a quick example of how the procedure works. Let’s say a patient has a herniated disc which is placing pressure on spinal nerves and causing pain. A surgeon could remove the herniated disc and fuse the two vertebra together. This would reduce pressure on nearby nerves, eliminating pain for the patient. For a spinal deformity like scoliosis, the surgeon could fuse several vertebra together to reduce the curvature of the spine.
The effectiveness of spinal fusion surgery has made it a popular surgery in the United States, where over 350,000 procedures are performed annually.
Five Facts About Spinal Fusion
Here are some spinal fusion facts which will you make a more informed decision when considering this type of surgery.
1. Spinal Fusion Is Only Appropriate For Certain Conditions
Spinal fusion can be used to treat degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, herniated discs, scoliosis, spondylolisthesis, tumors, fractured vertebrae, kyphosis, spinal weakness (caused by conditions like severe arthritis), and a small number of other conditions.
Notably, it can only be used when doctors know the precise location of the problem. If you have generalized pain or a physician is not able to diagnose the underlying cause of your pain, spinal fusion cannot be used. Patients also need to be in relatively good physical condition to safely undergo spinal fusion surgery.
If you do not have any of these conditions or are too unwell for major surgery, a minor procedure like a laminectomy may be a better option.
2. Modern Spinal Fusion Are Minimally Invasive
In years past, spinal fusion surgery would involve large incisions to the skin and muscle surrounding the spine. However, the several new medical technologies have dramatically reduced the invasiveness of the procedure.
In most cases, surgeons will only need to use small incisions, as they have special instruments which allow them to work beneath the skin. Instead of having to cut the large muscles surrounding the spine, the surgeon simply pushes them aside as they expose the vertebra.
Powerful optical tools also help the surgeon to make very precise movements, which further minimizes the trauma that occurs during surgery. This results in less blood loss during surgery, shorter hospital stays post-surgery, lower risk of infection, and shorter recovery periods.
3. Spinal Fusion Can Create Stronger Bones
Spinal fusion will permanently fuse two vertebrae together, creating a larger, healthier bone. This can improve a patient’s stability and reduce their risk of injury. This is particularly useful for patients with degenerative bone conditions like arthritis.
4. There Are Several Potential Complications
Although spinal fusion surgery is considered to be very safe, there are several possible complications, including:
- Improper wound healing
- Heart attack or stroke during surgery
- Blood clots (a rare complication which can pose a significant danger)
- Adverse reactions to medications or anesthesia
- Damage to the spinal nerve, which can cause pain, weakness, and bowel or bladder problems
- Additional stress placed on the bones surrounding the fused vertebra
- Pain near the location of the spinal fusion
- Recurring symptoms of the original condition
- Pseudarthrosism a condition that occurs when there isn’t enough bone formation
Patients can also experience a loss of flexibility in their spine after the procedure. However, this will vary depending on how many vertebra are being fused and where they are located along the spinal column. There are various complications that can occur during and after a spinal fusion, and you may want to read more about that here.
Because of the potential complications associated with this procedure, patients should always consider the alternatives to spinal fusion.
5. Spinal Fusion Will Not Heal The Entire Spine
A successful spinal fusion operation should eliminate all of the pain coming from the vertebra which were fused. However, if you have a chronic condition like arthritis, it may begin to affect other parts of your spine and cause pain return in a different area.