A spinal fusion is a surgery to weld together two vertebrae. Vertebrae are the bones that make up the spine.
To treat persistent pain and disability caused by: Spinal stenosis
(narrowing of the canal that the spinal cord runs through)
(vertebra is out of line with the others)
(abnormal curve in the spine)
Weak or unstable spine, usually due to infection or tumorsHerniated disk
Spinal fusion may be done if the treatments below do not relieve pain and disability: RestPain medicinesMuscle relaxantsPhysical therapyInjection of drugs to relieve pain and swellingMassageBracingBehavior change therapy
Imaging tests must also show a problem that can be fixed with this procedure.
Complications are rare, but no procedure is completely risk-free. If you are planning to have a spinal fusion, your doctor will review a list of possible complications. These may include: BleedingInfectionIncomplete fusion of the bonesBlood clotsHematoma (build-up of blood in the wound)
Nerve damage causing pain, numbness, tingling, or
paralysisImpaired bowel and/or bladder functionReaction to anesthesia
Before your procedure, talk to your doctor about ways to manage factors that may increase your risk of complications such as:
SmokingDrinkingPoor nutritionChronic disease such as diabetes or obesity
Your doctor may do the following: Physical exam, especially of the back and neckImaging studies will be done to examine the structures and plan surgery, including X-ray
—look at the bones
—to make pictures of the spinal nerves and disks between vertebrae
—to show if there is pressure on the cord or the nerves
Before your surgery:
Talk to your doctor about your medicines. You may be asked to stop taking some medicines up to one week before the procedure, like:
or other anti-inflammatory drugs
Blood thinners, such as
warfarinArrange for a ride home and for help at home.Eat a light meal the night before. Avoid eating or drinking anything after midnight.
may be used. With general anesthesia, you will be asleep. Spinal anesthesia will numb an area of your body, but you will be awake.
Your doctor will make an incision in your back or neck. The muscles will be spread to access the spine. Your doctor may fuse the bones with either: Grafts made from pieces of bone or bony material (the pieces of bone may be taken from the pelvis [hip])A small metal cage filled with bone graft material (the cage may be placed between the spinal bones)
Your doctor will implant screws and plates or rods to hold the bones in place while they fuse together. 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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4-6 hours (sometimes longer)
Anesthesia will prevent pain during surgery. You will receive medicine after surgery to help manage pain.
3-4 days (sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on age, overall health, and extent of surgery)
You may receive the following care at the hospital: Pain medicineBack brace or castLessons on how to properly move, sit, stand, and walkLessons on how to turn in bed without twisting the spinePhysical therapySpecial socks or boots to help prevent blood clotsYou will be shown how to move and exercise your legs while in bedYou will be encouraged to get up and walk around several times a day
During your stay, the hospital staff will take steps to reduce your chance of infection such as: Washing their handsWearing gloves or masksKeeping your incisions covered
There are also steps you can take to reduce your chances of infection such as: Washing your hands often and reminding visitors and healthcare providers to do the sameReminding your healthcare providers to wear gloves or masksNot allowing others to touch your incisions
When you return home, do the following to help ensure a smooth recovery:
Be sure to follow your doctor's
Keep the incision area clean and dry.Ask your doctor about when it is safe to shower, bathe, or soak in water.To improve circulation and decrease the risk of blood clots: Exercise your legs while in bed You may need to continue to wear special socks or bootsDo not lift anything heavy.The bones and grafts fuse together over several months. Your activity will be restricted during this time.Only take medicine recommended by your doctor. Ask your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medicine.Have the stitches or staples removed in two weeks.Your doctor may tell you to permanently avoid heavy lifting and strenuous activities that involve lifting and twisting.
Rehabilitation may be done in a hospital or at an outpatient clinic. The program will likely include: Exercises to strengthen your backLow-impact aerobic exercises, such as walking or swimming
Time off from work ranges from 4-6 weeks to 4-6 months. It depends on your age, overall health, and the physical demands of your job.
Complete healing of the bones may take up to one year after surgery. You will likely notice less flexibility of your spine where the bones are fused. Following your rehabilitation program will speed your recovery and reduce discomfort.
Healed Lumbar Fusion
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After you leave the hospital, contact your doctor if any of the following occurs: Signs of infection, including fever and chillsRedness, swelling, increasing pain, excessive bleeding, or discharge from the incision siteNausea and/or vomiting that you cannot control with the medicines you were given after surgery, or which persist for more than two days after discharge from the hospitalPain that you cannot control with the medicines you have been givenCough, shortness of breath, or chest painJoint pain, fatigue, stiffness, rash, or other new symptomsNumbness, tingling, pain, or weakness, especially in the arms, hands, legs, or feetPain, swelling in your feet, legs, or calvesLoss of bladder or bowel functionPain, burning, urgency, frequency of urination, or persistent blood in the urine
In case of an emergency, call for medical help right away.
AAOS clinical guideline on low back pain/sciatica (acute) (phases I and II). American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) website. Available at:
http://www.guidelines.gov/summary/summary.aspx?doc_id=5369&nbr=003672&string=spinal+AND+fusion. Accessed September 9, 2005.
Deyo RA, Nachemson S, et al. Spinal-fusion surgery—the case for restraint.
N Engl J Med. 2004;350(7):722-726.
Kim CW, Siemionow K, et al. The current state of minimally invasive spine surgery.
J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2011 Mar 16;93(6):582-596.
Lindström D, Omid Sadr A, et al. Effects of a perioperative smoking cessation intervention on postoperative complications: a randomized trial.
Lipson SJ. Spinal-fusion surgery—advances and concerns.
N Engl J Med. 2004;350(7):643-644.
North American Spine Society. Phase III clinical guidelines for multidisciplinary spine care specialists. Spinal stenosis version 1.0. National Guideline Clearinghouse website. Available at:
http://www.guidelines.gov/summary/summary.aspx?doc_id=3609&nbr=002835&string=spinal+AND+fusion. Accessed September 7, 2005.
Spinal fusion. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons website. Available at:
http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00348. Updated September 2007. Accessed June 25, 2008.
Spinal fusion surgery. North American Spine Society website. Available at:
http://www.spine.org/articles/spinalfusion.cfm. Accessed August 30, 2005.
Last reviewed December 2012 by John C. Keel, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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