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Risks and Complications of Spinal Fusion Surgery

Spinal fusion is a surgery that many medical specialists consider outdated but it is still widely performed. Although it can be effective in terms of ridding a person of pain, there are downsides, risks, and complications that need to be considered.

In this article, we will tell you all you need to know about spinal fusion surgery, including the conditions it can help to cure. As well as the disadvantages of the procedure. We will round up the article by discussing a possible spinal fusion alternative that avoids some of the common issues.

What is Spinal Fusion Surgery?

Spinal fusion is a type of surgery that fuses two of the vertebrae (bones in the spine) to limit motion and provide more stability in the back. This surgery aims to limit the movement in the spine that is causing the patient pain and discomfort. This operation is usually performed under general anesthetic and typically takes between 3-4 hours.

There are several different methods to perform this type of surgery and the most common forms involve a bone graft or a titanium plate being fixed using metal screws and rods. Your doctor will discuss which option is most suitable for your condition and determine if a bone graft is a viable solution.

What Conditions Is Spinal Fusion Recommended To Treat?

  • Spinal Stenosis – A condition that refers to the narrowing of the spinal canal that leads to unnatural pressure being placed on the surrounding nerves and/ or spinal cord.
  • Spondylolisthesis – When one or more vertebrae slip out of position (forward or backward), resulting in pain.
  • Degenerative Disc Disease – Over time the cushioned tissue (the discs) that sit between each vertebrae can wear down. This leads to a lack of protection and potentially causes arthritis.
  • Spinal fractures – The vertebrae can suffer fractures, possibly as the result of a car accident or sports injury. This can cause pain and discomfort as well as cause the spine to degenerate.
  • Spinal tumors – Tumors can develop in the spine, benign or cancerous that can impact the surrounding nerves and apply pressure on the spine.
  • Scoliosis – Some people are born with an abnormal curvature of the spine or a curvature can develop over time. In some cases, this can be painful and impact a person’s quality of life. Requires surgery to set the spine in a normal position.

These conditions can cause symptoms such as pain, weakness, tingling or burning sensations, a lack of mobility, a loss of bladder or bowel control, and other issues.

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Anyone suffering from these symptoms should visit their doctor immediately who can diagnose the issue with a physical examination, followed by tests such as an X-ray, CT scan, or MRI scan.

Spinal Fusion Recovery

The Hours After

Once the procedure has been completed, the patient will be immediately taken to a recovery area in the hospital. Here, the nurses and medical staff will monitor the patient’s heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing to assess the individual’s overall condition while the anesthetic wears off.

If the patient is experiencing any pain then painkillers will likely be administered and once in a stable condition, the patient will be transferred to their bed where frequent checks will be made to determine if the recovery is successful. At this point, the patient should be allowed to eat and drink again.

Sometimes, a catheter may be fitted to drain the patient’s bladder and this is usually taken out the day after the surgery.

The Days After

Hospital stays can vary and often depend on the extent of the operation. For example, if a person has multiple vertebrae fused as opposed to just one level of the spine. A person who has had spinal fusion will not be allowed to drive and must wait until they have been cleared by a medical professional before doing so.

The Weeks and Months After

Once out of the hospital, a person who has had a spinal fusion operation will regularly visit a physical therapist who will advise them on how to move and stay active. As well as recommending exercises to speed up recovery and improve the muscle strength in the back.

Anyone who has had spinal fusion surgery should also avoid any sudden twists and refrain from bending over as this could damage the fused area. Some people may also be required to wear a back brace during their recovery period, while compression stockings may also be recommended to avoid any blood clots in the legs.

The stitches will generally be removed by a doctor ten to fourteen days after the surgery. An X-ray will also be required six weeks after the surgery to confirm the fusion has been successful and has healed properly. The doctor will then give the patient the green light to increase their activity level and return to work.

It may take several months to fully heal from spinal fusion surgery.

Spinal Fusion Recovery: Ideal Practices

  • Always take pain medication as prescribed and do not miss doses.
  • Always keep the surgical dressing clean and dry.
  • Avoid swimming or taking baths until the wound has healed.
  • Avoid sitting down for long periods.
  • Avoid heavy lifting and household chores that involve bending and twisting such as using the vacuum cleaner or strenuous levels of cleaning, such as mopping.  
  • Try to take regular short walks for the first two weeks of recovery and increase the length and pace of your walks after this period to keep active.

Spinal Fusion Surgery: Possible Complications

Possible complications of spinal fusion surgery may include:

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  • Pain
  • Bleeding
  • Infections
  • Blood clots in the legs
  • Adverse reactions to anesthetic
  • Nerve damage
  • Deterioration to adjacent areas of the spine
  • The vertebrae may fail to fuse properly
  • The previous pain and symptoms may return

An Alternative To Spinal Fusion

Many doctors are now recommending mechanical spinal devices as an alternative to spinal fusion to cure conditions such as spondylolisthesis and spinal stenosis. These devices replace part of the vertebrae and accurately mimic their function to ensure the patient does not lose any range of motion in the back. This means patients can remain active and continue living a normal, unrestricted life.

These devices also offer quicker recovery times when compared to spinal fusion and can also avoid deterioration in adjacent vertebrae.

Thanks for reading. If you are scheduled to have spinal fusion surgery or any other form of back surgery then we hope this article has helped to offer some peace of mind.