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Advancements, Myths, and Realities in Spinal Fusion Surgery



Spinal fusion surgery is often performed following another type of procedure such as a discectomy or laminectomy. This provides the patient with enough support in the back to remain mobile. However, there are some drawbacks to this type of surgery that may not be well publicized.

In this article, we will discuss the myths and realities of spinal fusion surgery, as well as modern advancements that have led to superior treatments that improve spinal fusion surgery.

What is Spinal Fusion Surgery?

Spinal fusion surgery involves two or multiple vertebrae being fixed (fused) together using a mixture of metal screws, rods, and a bone graft to provide stability, usually following surgery such as a discectomy or laminectomy. This procedure creates a solid bridge in the spine to avoid weakness and unwanted movement. However, it may limit mobility.

This surgery is completed in 7 main stages:

  1. The patient is ‘prepped’ for the surgery, including a range of scans to evaluate the condition of the spine. This determines if the surgery is necessary and if the patient is healthy enough to go through with such an operation.
  2. The patient will be put under a general anesthetic so they will not be conscious during the surgery.
  3. An incision is made in the patient’s back, granting the surgeon access to the correct area of the spine to perform the procedure.
  4. Surrounding tissue and muscles are moved out of the way to expose the vertebrae.
  5. A piece of bone is taken from somewhere in the patient’s body to be used as a bone graft. However, synthetic bone grafts or donor bone grafts are sometimes used as an alternative. This is then placed between the affected vertebrae.
  6. Metal screws, plates, and rods are usually used to fix the bone graft and vertebrae in place.
  7. Once the vertebrae have been fused together, and the tissue and muscles moved back into place, the incision will be closed using stitches or staples.

Patients will usually remain in the hospital for 2-3 days while they recover from the surgery, while the full healing process can take several months. Physical therapy is typically issued to speed up rehabilitation.

Why is Spinal Fusion Surgery Necessary?

Spinal fusion surgery can be recommended by a doctor to treat a range of conditions and problems that are related to any area of the spine. If these issues worsen and a range of treatments prove unsuccessful, then corrective surgery in addition to spinal fusion is likely to be the last resort to help cure the symptoms permanently.

Symptoms could include consistent pain, instability in the spine, nerve/ spinal cord compression that causes discomfort, and other symptoms such as numbness or a tingling feeling.

Below are some of the conditions that could require spinal fusion surgery:

  • Spinal Stenosis – The narrowing of the spinal canal which can apply pressure to the spinal cord and surrounding nerves.
  • Degenerative Disc Disease – The wearing down of the discs (cushioned tissue that protects the spine), causing the vertebrae to run together and cause pain.
  • Herniated Discs – A ruptured disc, with the soft tissue bulging out of the outer casing and coming into contact with the nerves or spinal cord.
  • Spondylolisthesis – Occurs when one or more vertebrae slips forward.
  • Tumors – Tumors in the spine can cause instability and pressure on sensitive areas, resulting in pain and inflammation. Once the tumor is removed, spinal fusion could be an option to support the affected vertebrae.
  • Scoliosis – This refers to a curvature of the spine and in some cases, spinal fusion may be needed to help straighten the affected vertebrae and provide stability.
  • Fractures: Spinal fractures sometimes require spinal fusion if they are severe and may not heal correctly.

Steps Before Considering Spinal Fusion or Other Surgeries

Your doctor will likely recommend a range of treatments to try before any form of surgery is considered. These therapies could include physical therapy, drugs and medications, and changes to the patient’s lifestyle to promote healthier living.

Surgery may be considered a viable option if the above treatments do not alleviate a person’s symptoms which have become severe enough to impact their quality of life.

Like any surgery, spinal fusion comes with risks and a person who has poor general health would likely not be considered for such an operation. Any decision to perform surgery will be made after a long consultation, with numerous tests and scans required to assess the patient’s health.

Spinal Fusion: Myths and Realities

In this section, we have compiled a list of some of the myths and realities that surround spinal fusion surgery, giving you an honest overview of what to expect.

  • Myth – Spinal fusion does not prevent all ranges of motion in the spine but can impact a person’s flexibility.
  • Reality – Spinal fusion does not cure all pain in the back. This is dependent on the condition and issue which may still persist.
  • Myth – The patient suffers from significant pain following spinal surgery. Although there is always some pain after surgery. Modern techniques can limit the effects considerably.
  • Reality – A patient may only experience noticeable relief several months after spinal fusion surgery.
  • Myth – Spinal fusion does not always need metal implants such as rods and screws. In some cases, only a bone graft is needed.
  • Reality – Most patients are discharged from the hospital a few days following surgery and a long hospital stay is very rarely needed.

Spinal Surgery: Advancements

Modern advancements that have improved spinal fusion surgery include mechanical spinal implants that allow a person to retain a full range of motion in their back. These systems (such as the TOPS System) are considered the best alternative to spinal fusion. Offering quicker recovery times and enabling a better quality of life in the long term.

Thank you for reading. We hope this article has provided some new insights into spinal fusion surgery and the myths that may surround the procedure.

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