What is spinal fusion?
A spinal fusion surgery is one in which one or more vertebrae (the bones that make up the spinal column) are fused together with the bone or bones above or below it. The vertebral column is made of 24 bones (not including the fused sacral bones at the very bottom of the spine) that are stacked on top of each other and comprise the spinal column. The spinal cord is encased within this vertebral column. A spinal fusion surgery can take place at any part of the spinal column meaning the cervical spine (neck), the thoracic spine (mid to upper back), or the lumbar spine (low back). Most commonly, this procedure will be performed on the lumbar spine.
Spinal fusion recovery
The recovery after a spinal fusion is usually quite long, and requires an inpatient hospital stay of a few days. The long recovery period is because it takes several months for substantial bone healing to occur in the spinal column. Certainly, immediate discomfort will be present at first and the requirement of learning new ways to perform certain tasks and other movements. There will be pain at the surgical site but generally the overall pain, the pain that led you to requiring surgery in the first place, will be gone.
The easiest way to think of a spinal fusion is to imagine a welding of two pieces of metal. The pieces are connected and fused together. In spinal fusion surgery, the bones are certainly not fused together in the same manner as a welding technique. Often, bone grafts may be used, as well as rods, plates, or screws inserted in order to make the area of fusion immobile. Keeping the two bones that are being fused together immobile is key.
As healing begins after surgery, the body’s natural healing process takes place with the growth of new bone in the area, similar to the healing that takes place after a fracture, so that eventually the bones are fused together, and no movement can occur between them.
The reasons a spinal fusion surgery may be considered by your surgeon usually pertains to a bulging or herniated disc, but this is not always the case. Commonly, when it is determined that an intervertebral disc is the root cause of your pain and conservative treatment in order to manage this pain has been tried and failed, a spinal fusion will be considered.
In this case, part or all of the intervertebral disc will be removed, and the vertebrae above and below it will be fused together, essentially eliminating the problem. Some other reasons for considering spinal fusion surgery are:
Immobilization is the key to proper recovery from this surgery. As in a fracture of any other bone in the body, the area needs to be immobilized for a time in order for healing to take place. The same goes for a spinal fusion.
After surgery, you will be in localized pain, but the pain should be dramatically different from the pain that led to requiring surgery. Pain killers will be necessary at first as well as a course of antibiotics to help stave off infection. NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) will most likely be recommended as well to help with inflammation.
Sometimes, it will be recommended that you wear a spinal brace during your recovery period to help with immobilizing the area and facilitate healing. During this time, and after your surgeon is certain that a proper amount of healing has taken place, you will be instructed to undergo a course of physical therapy.
In physical therapy, you will learn safe techniques and movements in order to preserve the integrity of your spinal fusion, restore range of motion, strength, and function.
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