Spinal Fusion Surgery: What to Expect Before, During, and After the Procedure

Spinal fusion refers to an orthopedic procedure used to permanently join two or more vertebrae (bones) in the spine. Its main function is to weld the problematic vertebrae together, creating a strong, solid bone as it heals. 

Generally, doctors perform this operation to eliminate pain when moving, which is usually caused by instability or deformity in the vertebrae. 

If you’re scheduled to have this kind of surgery, then you’re probably curious about what happens while you’re on the table. So, here are some of the things you need to do or expect before, during, and after the operation.

When is spinal fusion surgery recommended?

Spinal fusion, also known as arthrodesis, is typically performed to relieve the symptoms of several spinal conditions. It involves connecting two vertebrates together through bone grafting, removing mobility in the area to reduce pain, instability, and the risk of further injury.

Generally, doctors recommend a spinal fusion for patients with back problems that do not get better with conservative treatment options. Some examples of such diseases include:

  • Degenerative disc disease
  • An illness caused by the natural wear and tear of the spinal discs (a rubber-like structure located between vertebrates) that happens when a person ages. As the cushioning frays away, the two spinal bones will eventually rub against each other, causing pain and other problems.
  • Spinal stenosis
  • a condition wherein the nerve roots get compressed within the narrowing space of the spinal canal, causing moderate to severe pain. It usually happens as a complication of osteoarthritis.
  • Scoliosis
  • The abnormal sideways curvature of the spine may either be congenital or a complication of spinal stenosis.
  • Kyphosis
  • An excessive outward rounding of the spine in the upper back caused by weakened vertebrae.
  • Herniated disc
  • A bulging or ruptured spinal disc due to an injury or natural wear and tear of the cushions. As the disc protrudes out, it will create pressure on the outer ring, causing lower back pain.
  • Spondylolisthesis
  • An abnormal forward movement or slippage of the vertebrae causing spinal instability and pain during movement.
  • Fracture in the vertebra
  • Spinal instability due to a tumor or infection

When you have the conditions mentioned above, you may find significant pain relief after a spinal fusion surgery. It may decrease your range of motion or flexibility, but it won’t entirely affect your movements and ability to perform activities.

An orthopedic doctor will diagnose your spinal condition through your symptoms, medical history, and physical examination. Your doctor will also utilize imaging procedures to confirm their diagnoses, such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs.

How to prepare for a spinal fusion operation?

Initially, your doctor will try to relieve your symptoms using non-invasive methods, such as medications, injectables, and physical therapy. If these techniques fail, your doctor will then recommend a spinal fusion surgery. 

Your doctor will order a series of laboratory tests to ensure you’re healthy enough to undergo such a procedure. Some of the things you can do to prepare for your operation include:

  • Quit smoking and alcohol drinking.
  • Disclose your current medications with your doctor.
  • Prepare your home to avoid any hassle after the surgery. This may include moving the bed downstairs, placing important items within reach, or investing in assistive devices. 
  • Have someone drive you to and from the facility. You may also enlist the help of family members in doing household activities during your recovery.

Most spinal fusion surgeries are performed using minimally invasive techniques, thus allowing it to be an outpatient procedure. This means that you can go home on the day of your surgery only if there are no complications detected.

What happens during the procedure?

Before the procedure, your doctor will put you under general anesthesia, which means that you’ll be in a sleep-like state and won’t feel any pain. Here’s a play-by-play on how your surgeon will perform a spinal fusion:

  • Your orthopedic surgeon can use different approaches (e.g., anterior, posterior) to access the spine, depending on the damaged area. He/she may utilize a minimally invasive technique or an open procedure, depending on the severity of the condition and its location.
  • The surgeon will then make an incision that will directly give access to the problematic vertebrates (e.g., directly over the spine, back of the neck, etc.).
  • Next, your surgeon will prepare the bone graft and harvest it either from your own pelvis or a bone bank. They may also use an artificial bone graft material. 
  • Once prepared, they will place it in the space between the vertebrae. Your surgeon will then perform an internal fixation using metal rods, screws, and plates to add strength and stability to the fused bones. Internal fixation can also help increase the healing rate of the fused bones.
  • Lastly, the incision will be closed using sutures.

The whole procedure takes at least two to three hours, depending on the patient’s back problem. Sometimes, it may take longer (up to 7 hours) for complicated or severe cases. 

After the surgery, you will be taken into a recovery room where healthcare providers monitor your vitals and condition. For a minimally invasive spinal fusion, patients may be discharged after a few hours of recuperation in the recovery area. But for open surgeries and complex cases, the patient may need to stay in the facility for at least three days.

What should you expect after spinal fusion surgery?

Right after the procedure, it’s normal to feel pain, soreness, and general discomfort as part of the healing process. Your physician will prescribe pain relievers and other medications to deal with these temporary effects. Some of the do’s and dont’s your doctor may instruct you to do include:

  • Wearing a brace to keep the spine immobile and stable.
  • Limiting movements and activities to let the bones heal and fuse correctly. This means no work, driving, heavy exercise, or household chores for a few days.
  • Learning new techniques to move around safely. For example, the log-rolling technique may be used to get out of bed without twisting the spine.
  • Consume only soft foods for a few days. 
  • Attending physical therapy sessions to improve healing time and learn ways to exercise and perform daily living activities safely. Rehabilitation usually starts six weeks after the surgery.

How long is the recovery time for spinal fusion?

With proper post-operative care and rehabilitation, you will gradually regain your strength and ability to perform light activities. Your doctor will clear you on what activities you can safely resume. 

Generally, patients achieve full recovery four to six months after the surgery. Of course, this will still depend on the patient’s age, overall physical condition, and underlying medical illnesses.

natural wear and tear of the spinal discs

Raleigh Orthopedic and Panther Creek一your trusted surgery center for quality orthopedic services. 

The Orthopaedic Surgery Center of Panther Creek is one of the most trusted outpatient surgery centers in Cary. Our board-certified physicians are equipped with advanced sub-specialty training to provide different treatment options for various orthopedic conditions. 

If you have any questions regarding spinal fusion surgery, don’t hesitate to give us a call at 919-582-3050. 

The material contained on this site is for informational purposes only and DOES NOT CONSTITUTE THE PROVIDING OF MEDICAL ADVICE, and is not intended to be a substitute for independent professional medical judgment, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your health.

outpatient orthopedic surgery cary
6715 McCrimmon Parkway
Suite 205 A 
Cary, NC 27519
Monday – Friday: 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
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