What is Spinal Fusion?

Spinal fusion is a surgical procedure to permanently join together two or more vertebrae, the bones in the spine. Certain spinal disorders can lead to instability and pain, and the idea behind spinal fusion is that fusing vertebrae together can both make them stronger and reduce motion, which can sometimes reduce pain.

There are several different types of spinal fusion surgery available, mostly depending on where your pain is located and whether your surgeon will perform the procedure through the back, front, or side. In general, a fusion is performed by packing the vertebrae to be fused with grafted bone. This bone may be taken from the patient's hip, may be donated from a cadaver, or it may be a manufactured synthetic material. The bone is placed along the vertebrae, and sometimes, the disc that lies in between the vertebrae is removed and replaced with grafted bone. The bone material will grow and cement the two vertebrae together. After the bone graft is placed, the vertebrae are sometimes held in place with rods, screws, plates, or cages, depending on the weakness of the spine and needs of the graft.

Spinal fusion is a significant surgery and can take three to four hours or more. Recovery is typically two to four days in the hospital. After surgery, it is important to remember that the fusion takes time to grow from the bone graft. So, the actual fusion is not complete for several months. You will probably feel somewhat better right away, but it may take a while to feel the full effects of the fusion as the bone grows into place. In the meantime, your doctor might have you wear a brace to protect your spine and keep it properly aligned.

Spinal fusion is not used for all kinds of back pain. Changing the way the spine moves can lead to strain on the other joints in the back, and fusion is only performed when the benefits outweigh the risks. Some spine disorders that are treated with fusion include:
  • Curvature disorders, such as scoliosis and kyphosis
  • Degenerative disc disease
  • Spondylolisthesis, a disorder that causes vertebrae to slip over each other
  • Significant spinal fractures that cause instability
  • Weakened spine due to infection or tumor
  • Some cases of spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column
  • Chronic lower back pain (although the use of fusion to treat this is controversial)

Regardless of the diagnosis, there is always a possibility of 'failure' with spinal fusion, or of the surgery not fully solving the pain. This is more likely when fusion is used primarily to treat pain instead of structural problems. You can improve your chances of a successful outcome by stopping smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, moving your body every day, and following your doctor's instructions for any physical therapy you are prescribed.
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