Doctors will sometimes recommend surgical procedures for patients with severe back pain who haven’t found relief with physical therapy or medication. But choosing surgery can be a major decision, and you likely have a lot of questions swirling around your head.
In particular, some orthopedic surgeons may recommend spinal fusion surgery, which involves connecting vertebrae in your spine to keep them from slipping out of place. But how does it work? And who could benefit from this surgery?
To help answer your questions, Florida Medical Clinic orthopedic and spine surgeon Dr. Geoffrey Cronen dives into the details of spinal fusion surgery and everything else you need to know about this procedure.
What is spinal fusion surgery?
Spinal fusion surgery is a procedure that connects two or more vertebrae, which are the interlocking bones that make up the spine and protect the spinal cord.
Some medical conditions can cause vertebrae in the neck or lower back to rub together and move around too much, leading to severe pain. Spinal fusion can stop those vertebrae from moving, which can help alleviate pain in some patients, as well as increase mobility.
What does it treat?
Doctors may recommend spinal fusion surgery for patients who have lower back or neck pain that’s caused by a degenerative disease or an injury that can’t be healed any other way.
Spinal fusion is often performed on patients who have severe cases of one or more of the following:
- Scoliosis or kyphosis. These are when the spine is bending too far to the side (scoliosis) or forward or backward (kyphosis). Spinal fusion surgery can help correct these conditions and keep them from getting worse over time.
- Herniated (slipped) disc. Many patients with a herniated disc can find relief by resting for a few days and taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicine. However, your doctor may recommend surgery when a slipped disc doesn’t get better or causes symptoms like numbness, loss of bowel or bladder control, or trouble standing/walking.
- A degenerative disease. Osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease can cause severe back pain when two vertebrae rub together. By fusing them, patients can experience pain relief and increased mobility.
- An unstable spine. Fusion can help strengthen the spine when it’s been weakened due to cancer or an infection.
- Broken bones. Sometimes the spine can be severely damaged after a traumatic injury and require surgery to heal.
Spinal fusion isn’t appropriate for all patients with severe back or neck pain. It works best for patients whose pain is specifically caused by vertebrae in the spine moving around and rubbing together.
Dr. Cronen will talk with each of his patients about their options—both surgical and non-surgical—to find a treatment that works best for them.
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How does it work?
Spinal fusion is an in-patient procedure, meaning you’ll be admitted to a hospital for your surgery and won’t be able to go home right away.
During the procedure, you’ll be given general anesthesia so you won’t feel pain or be awake. The length of your surgery will vary depending on the work being done, but it typically lasts between two and seven hours.
Your surgeon will use a combination of bone grafts, metal plates, rods, and screws to fuse two or more vertebrae and hold them in place. The bone graft helps hold your vertebrae in place, and it may be sourced by taking a small piece of bone from your pelvis. If your surgeon doesn’t take a graft from your body, then it may come from a bone bank or be made artificially.
What’s the recovery process like?
You’ll be asked to stay at the hospital for a few days after having spinal fusion surgery. This is so your surgical team can monitor your condition and keep an eye out for signs of infection.
Because spinal fusion is a major surgery, recovery can take some time. It may take between six months and a year for your back to completely heal depending on the type of surgery you receive.
After being discharged from the hospital, you won’t be able to perform many of your usual daily tasks or motions like bending, twisting, or lifting. If your surgeon says it’s okay, you should be able to walk short distances.
You’ll be able to start physical therapy about 6 weeks to 3 months after surgery, where you’ll learn safe ways to bend, lift, and move around. During the recovery process, you’ll meet with your surgeon several times to ensure you’re healing properly.
What are the risks?
Like any surgery, there are some risks associated with spinal fusion. These include:
- Blood clots
- Nerve damage
- Blood vessel damage
Before and after the procedure, your surgeon will talk with you about how to reduce the risk of complications. If you have any concerns at any point in the process, Dr. Cronen and our care team will be able to address your needs and answer any questions.
How do I prepare for recovery?
Since you’ll be limited in what you can do after you return home, here are a few tips for what you can do to make your living space more comfortable.
- Stock up on pre-made meals. Since cooking may be too strenuous in the first couple weeks after surgery, consider stocking your fridge and freezer with pre-made meals. These can be microwavable dinners or food that you’ve meal-prepped.
- Get a grabber tool. Grabber tools are claw-like devices that can be used to pick up smaller items without bending over. These are helpful in case you drop something lightweight on the floor or need to get something down from a shelf.
- Get a shower seat. Shower seats can make bathing easier after surgery. Be sure to purchase a seat specifically designed for use in a shower, and test it out beforehand to ensure you can easily reach shampoo and soap bottles while sitting.
- Prepare your bed. Many patients find that it’s easier to sleep propped up after surgery. Consider adding extra pillows to your bed or preparing to sleep on a recliner chair.
Should I get spinal fusion surgery?
The decision to get spinal fusion surgery is between you and your doctor. Spinal fusion is not for every condition, but it can help some patients get their lives back by helping to reduce pain and increase mobility.
To learn more about spinal fusion surgery and whether or not it’s the best treatment option for you, schedule an appointment with Dr. Cronen at a Florida Medical Clinic location in North Tampa or Wiregrass. Telemedicine visits are also available.
About Geoffrey Cronen, MD
Board-certified orthopedic surgeon Dr. Geoffrey Cronen has been treating patients in the Tampa Bay area since 2007. Dr. Cronen specializes in corrective spinal surgery to treat conditions like scoliosis, kyphosis, degenerative disc disease, tumors, compression fractures, and more. When not treating patients at Florida Medical Clinic, Dr. Cronen treats children with spinal conditions at the Shriners Hospital for Children.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Every patient is different, so talk with your orthopedic doctor to learn what treatment options are best for you.