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

Experiencing back pain? You're not alone. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke indicate 80 percent of adults have experienced low back pain. A spinal fusion is a common surgical procedure to fuse two or more bones of the vertebrae to form a single bone. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), the surgery is most often done to decrease pain or increase mobility caused by a number of back problems.

Worried about the long-term effects of a spinal fusion? Here is what you need to know. Credit: Julia Pfeifer / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages

Degenerative disc disease, herniated disc, infection, scoliosis, tumors, fractured vertebrae, spinal stenosis, and spondylolithesis are the most common cited back problems that could warrant a spinal fusion. These issues can arise from arthritis, injury, aging, or disease.

Dangers of a Spinal Fusion

Every surgery comes with a risk of complications. Following a doctors orders and adhering to post operative instructions are extremely necessary to minimize the risk of complications in the weeks and months following surgery.

Taking prescribed antibiotics can reduce the risk of infections at the surgery site. Research published in The Open Orthopaedics Journal in 2015 indicated that out of a sample size of 95 patients receiving spinal surgery, only 26 percent of those had complications, mostly minor. The highest complication was surgical site infection. This stresses the importance of good post-operative wound care.

The AAOS indicates that physical activity too soon after surgery can result in pseudarthrosis, which may prompt a second surgery. Smoking, diabetes, and advanced age can also increase the risk of developing pseudarthrosis.

Recovery Time for a Spinal Fusion

For those who choose spinal surgery, they must realize it takes time to heal. It can take many months to fully recover from spinal fusion surgery. The Mayo Clinic indicates you will most likely be in the hospital for 2 to 3 days after surgery. The AAOS recommends starting physical therapy at week 6 and ongoing until 3 months post surgery. You may be instructed to wear a back brace for a time specified by your physician. This is to keep your spine properly aligned and reduce the risks of complications.

Long Term Effects of a Spinal Fusion

The surgery is joining two bones together, so there is a risk for decreased range of motion, indicates the AAOS, but they note that most patients will not notice a difference. There is the possibility that the surgery is not successful in treating the pain and the symptoms return. In addition, nerve damage is a rare, but possible long term effect of having a spinal fusion. Blood clots, bleeding, and pain at the surgical site are potential complications of spinal fusion, according to the AAOS.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle to include good nutrition, physical activity when appropriate, and following the orders given by your doctor can greatly increase the positive outcome of the spinal fusion surgery and minimize the complications that may arise otherwise.

Alternatives to Spinal Fusion

The Mayo Clinic suggests having a conversation with your doctor to rule out all non-surgical options first, before proceeding with spinal fusion. A 2016 article published in the Malaysian Orthopaedic Journal indicated 80 to 95 percent of patients are unable to identify the cause of their lower back pain, indicating that spinal surgery may not be the best source of action.

Harvard Medical School makes some suggestions for alternatives for spinal fusion, as they indicate spinal fusion is only helpful in approximately 50 percent of patients. They list some alternatives, such as yoga, walking, over the counter medication, and spinal manipulation from specialists, such as chiropractors, physical therapists, osteopaths, and massage therapists.

If considering spinal fusion surgery, discuss the long term effects with your doctor to stay fully informed of your personal healthcare decisions.

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