What is Spinal Fusion Surgery?
Spinal fusion is a surgical procedure that involves placing pieces of bone in between two vertebrae which will help fuse the two segments together to eliminate movement between them, relieving the patient of pain and other symptoms of degenerative disc disease, as well as other conditions like deformity, instability, or a spinal break that can cause similar symptoms. The bone fragments are kept in place by a mechanism of rods, screws, and cylinders.
It will take several months for the segments to fuse together, but when they do, the spine will be stable and immobile. This helps in greatly reducing or eliminating chronic back pain and extremities like the legs or arms. When the bones fuse together, it cannot be undone. This is why it is recommended to try traditional non-surgical methods first before deciding on having this type of surgery.
Ideal Candidates for Spinal Fusion
This procedure is very helpful in treating symptoms of degenerative disc disease and other conditions that produce the same symptoms; however, not all patients suffering from these conditions can be considered candidates for surgery. In order to determine whether or not a patient is a good candidate, surgeons have to consider several factors. The first and most important factor is the patient’s medical history. A patient must be in good overall health in order to withstand this procedure.
The surgeon will also have to determine the cause of the pain and see if other less invasive methods would work before recommending surgery. Another factor would be the results of physical and diagnostics exams. Different spinal conditions may present with the same symptoms, but it doesn’t mean they could all be treated the same way. The patients who are looking to undergo this procedure must first go through a series of tests in order to determine if this particular surgery is the right course of action.
How the Procedure is Done
Spinal fusion is done under general anesthesia and lasts approximately 4 hours or more depending on the extent of the damage within the spine and whether other procedures may be needed to ensure that the nerves in the spine are protected. The surgeon can access the spine from the abdomen or through the patient’s back depending on the location of the affected vertebrae.
For fusion of the cervical vertebrae, the incision is made in the front of the neck. For lumbar and thoracic vertebrae, on the other hand, the patient lays face down on the operating table and the incision is made down the middle of the patient’s back. Using a retractor, surgeons must work their way through layers of muscles, tissue, organs, and veins in order to expose the vertebrae. Using fluoroscopy and x-ray images, the surgeons need to identify the segments that need fusion.
At this point, herniated disc fragments, bone spurs, and tissue may be removed to decompress the spinal nerves before inserting the bone grafts in the space between the two affected vertebrae. The bone fragments are usually harvested from the patient’s pelvic bone, lamina, or tail bone. At times, the harvesting happens during surgery, but for weaker patients, surgeons may opt to harvest the bone fragments ahead of time to prevent keeping the patient on the table too long. Once the bone fragments are in place, they are held together by screws, rods, and cylinders to help keep them in place until the bone segments fuse.
This procedure is considered a major surgery and the effects are permanent. In order to help you make an informed decision, our excellent surgeons are willing to speak with you about spinal fusion surgery and help you decide whether it’s right for you.