Spinal Fusion

Spinal fusion, or arthrodesis, is a surgical procedure that “welds” or fuses together two or more of the spine’s vertebrae to create a solid bone bridge between the bones. At the completion of surgery and healing, which takes place over several months to over a year, the two adjoining bones are fused and no motion takes place between them.

In spinal fusion, the goal is to stimulate the body’s natural bone growth processes and encourage bone growth between two adjacent vertebrae to create a solid area of bone. This creates stability between the vertebrae, strengthens the spine’s structures and eliminates movement that causes significant pain.

Spinal fusion may be performed by itself or in combination with other back surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal column and nerves.

When is spinal fusion used?

There are a variety of conditions that may lead a surgeon to perform spinal fusion, including:

  • Injuries to the vertebrae, including traumatic injury from accidents and compression fractures.
  • Scoliosis or other abnormal curvatures of the spine.
  • Slipped or herniated disc problems.
  • Spinal stenosis.
  • A weak or unstable spine caused by infections, disease or tumors.

What happens during spinal fusion surgery?

In the most common and preferable form of spinal fusion surgery, natural bone is used to stimulate the fusion. Supplementary bone–either from the elsewhere in the person’s body, such as the hip or pelvis, or from a bone bank–is grafted onto or attached to two existing separate spinal segments. Then the entire area is immobilized to allow the newly introduced bone and the existing bone structure to grow together, or fuse, eventually creating one continuous piece of bone.

Immobilization may be done internally using by implants such as metal rods, externally using bracing or casting, or by a combination of the two methods.

The surgery is performed while a patient is fully asleep under a general anesthesia. This major surgical procedure generally requires several hours.

What happens after spinal fusion surgery?

Because spinal fusion is a major surgical procedure, recovery generally takes longer than with other types of spine surgery.

Patients often have a several day hospital stay and must complete follow-on rehabilitation to rebuild strength and functioning in the back.

The spine needs to be kept in proper alignment following surgery, so patients normally wear a back brace or a cast. In addition, they are taught how to move, reposition, sit, stand and walk properly.

Depending upon individual health status and age, it may take several months for a patient to return to normal functioning. It can take six to nine months or longer for the bone fusion to be completed.

Are there drawbacks to spinal fusion surgery?

The primary drawback to spinal fusion surgery is that the fusion eliminates the natural movement between two vertebrae, limiting the person’s movement. As a result, patients may need to avoid certain lifting and twisting activities.

There are other risks associated with spinal surgery. A patient’s surgeon will discuss all the risks in detail before surgery is undertaken.