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What Are the Long-Term Effects of a Spinal Fusion?

author image Charis Grey
For 15 years, Charis Grey's award-winning work has appeared in film, television, newspapers, magazines and on the Internet. She has worked as a story editor on the CBS drama "Flashpoint" and her work appears bimonthly in "The Driver Magazine." She has a Bachelor of Science in biology and a doctorate in chiropractic medicine from Palmer College.
What Are the Long-Term Effects of a Spinal Fusion?
Spinal fusion is used to treat degenerative disc disease. Photo Credit Wirbels�¤ule - Computertomographie image by Daniel Schmid from <a href="http://www.fotolia.com">Fotolia.com</a>

Spinal fusion is a surgical procedure that is often used to remedy degenerative disc disease. The break down of cartilaginous discs that separate the spinal vertebrae due to injury or to normal wear and tear of aging can cause a number of health problems. The loss of disc height can cause an obstruction of the openings in the spine through which spinal nerves emerge. A disc herniation can put pressure on the spine itself. Spinal fusion attempts to address these issues, but some patients wonder if any long-term issues should be considered.

Loss of Mobility

The procedure for spinal fusion involves removing the degenerated disc from between two vertebrae then fusing those vertebrae together through the use of bone grafts and metal surgical utensils. The fusion of the two vertebrae negates the possibility of any further movement between them, as the bone graft grows and essentially transforms the two smaller vertebrae into one larger one.rnrnCedars Sinai notes that this loss of flexibility is a well-known disadvantage of the spinal fusion procedure. The fused joint will no longer be capable of flexion, extension, rotation or lateral bending.

Permanent Biomechanical Alterations

The fusion of two adjacent vertebral segments will inevitably alter the biomechanical capabilities of the spine, and Cedars Sinai notes that these changes in the spineâ??s motion characteristics are non-reversible. MayoClinic.com describes this effect of spinal fusion as an immobilization of part of the spine that changes spinal biomechanics.

Accelerated Degeneration of Adjacent Discs

When two vertebrae are joined, adjacent vertebrae are subject to greater amounts of stress and strain. Cedars Sinai warns that spinal fusion creates the potential for the vertebrae above and below the fused segment to become increasingly unstable and prone to faster rates of degeneration.

Long-Term Pain Relief

On the plus side, spinal fusion surgery seems to have a significant advantage over physiotherapy when it comes to long term relief of lower back pain. Per Ekman, a surgeon at Stockholm South General Hospital, states that nine years after fusion surgery, 76 percent of patients reported continued relief from back pain, whereas in the group that received physiotherapy alone, only 50 percent reported comparable levels of satisfaction.

Correction of Spinal Deformity

When spinal fusion is used to correct the curvature of the spine known as scoliosis, high rates of success have been recorded. A 70 percent curvature correction is typical in children and teens who undergo this procedure, and complication rates remain at a low 2 to 3 percent, according a report by the University of Washington Medicine.

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