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A spinal fusion is surgery to weld together two or more vertebrae so they heal into one strong bone. Vertebrae are the bones that make up the spine.
Spinal nerves leave the spine between the vertebrae. Damage to the vertebra and the disc that sits between them can put extra pressure on these nerves. This can cause pain and weakness in the areas of the body affected by the nerve. Spinal fusion may be done when other methods have not helped. A spinal fusion removes damaged tissue and locks the two vertebrae in place to prevent irritation of the spinal nerve between the vertebrae.
This surgery is done to ease pain and improve function. Spinal fusion may be done to treat problems, such as:
Problems are rare, but all procedures have some risk. The doctor will go over some problems that could happen, such as:
Things that may raise the risk of problems are:
The surgical team may meet with you to talk about:
The doctor may give:
Spinal fusion can be done by open surgery or using a minimally invasive technique. The exact steps will depend on the type of spinal fusion that is being done. Some examples are:
Interbody fusion uses the surfaces in between the vertebrae for fusion. The disc in between the vertebrae is either partly or fully removed. A cage (spacer) will be placed between the vertebra where the disc was removed. The cage may be made of plastic or metal. Bone grafts are used to help the bones heal together into one solid bone. It may be from a person's own bone, one from a cadaver, or artificial bone. Metal screws and plates may then be placed on the outside of the vertebra to keep the bones stable. There are three types of interbody fusion:
Another option is posterolateral fusion . An incision is made in the back. The muscles are pushed aside to access the vertebra. Damaged bone and structures may be removed to ease pressure on spinal nerves. A graft will be placed along the outside of the vertebra to support bone healing and growth. Screws and rods may also be used to keep the bones stable while they heal.
The incision will be closed with stitches or staples.
A metal cage filled with bone graft is placed between lumbar vertebrae.
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4 to 6 hours or longer
Pain and swelling are common in the first month. Medicine and home care can help.
Most people leave in 3 to 4 days. If you have any problems, you may need to stay longer.
Right after the procedure, the staff may:
Physical therapy will be started soon after the procedure.
During your stay, staff will take steps to lower your chance of infection, such as:
You can also lower your chance of infection by:
It will take a few weeks for the incisions to heal. It will take several months for the bones to fully fuse. Physical activity will be limited during recovery. You will need to ask for help with daily activities and delay return to work.
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Call the doctor if you are not getting better or you have:
If you think you have an emergency, call for medical help right away.
Know Your Back—North American Spine Society
Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Canadian Orthopaedic Association
When it Hurts to Move—Canadian Orthopaedic Foundation
Anterior lumbar interbody fusion. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: https://orthoinfo.org/en/treatment/anterior-lumbar-interbody-fusion. Accessed September 30, 2020.
Chronic low back pain. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/chronic-low-back-pain. Accessed September 30, 2020.
Posterior lumbar interbody fusion and transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/treatment/spinal-fusion-plif-tlif. Accessed September 30, 2020.
Qaseem A, Wilt TJ, et al. Noninvasive Treatments for Acute, Subacute, and Chronic Low Back Pain: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American College of Physicians. Ann Intern Med. 2017 Apr 4;166(7):514-530.
Spinal fusion. Ortho Info—American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at: https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/treatment/spinal-fusion. Accessed September 30, 2020.
Spine surgery: Lumbar interbody fusion. Hospital for Special Surgery website. Available at: https://www.hss.edu/conditions_spine-surgery-lumbar-interbody-fusion.asp#.VJMAvsAKA. Accessed September 30, 2020.
Last reviewed September 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Warren A. Bodine, DO, CAQSM Last Updated: 6/9/2021