Common Occurrences After Lumbar Spinal Fusion

Pain and instability in the vertebral joints of the lower spine cause many people to seek medical help. When conservative treatments such as medication, chiropractic adjustment or physical therapy fail to yield results, some may opt for surgery. Spinal fusion surgery involves the removal of the cartilaginous disc that separates two consecutive vertebrae. After the disc is removed, bone grafts are used to coax the two vertebrae to fuse into a single bony segment. The results of this procedure can vary.

A smiling doctor is holding the hand of her patient. Credit: XiXinXing/XiXinXing/Getty Images

Failed Back Surgery Syndrome

At least 20 percent of all spinal fusion surgeries fail to relieve lower-back pain, according to Dr. John Sherman, an orthopedic surgeon writing for the website Spine-Health. This result is so common that it has been given the name "failed back surgery syndrome," even though it isn't actually a syndrome. The failure of surgery to relieve pain is most often an indicator that the lesion that was removed during the operation was not actually the cause of the pain in the first place.

Lengthy Recovery Time

It takes time for bones to heal, and after a significant surgical procedure such as lumbar spinal fusion, a patient should expect a considerable period of convalescence. Sherman advises that a period of three months is necessary for the fusion to set and begin to mature. During this period, activities that might compromise the surgery must be restricted to ensure proper healing. Flexion, extension or rotation of the lower spine may place undue stress on the growing bones. Vigorous activities such as running should also be limited. Prepping for surgery should involve rearrangement of the patient's living environment to minimize the need for excessive stretching and lifting during the recovery period.

Muscle Deconditioning

Following lumbar spinal fusion surgery, a patient must spend a certain amount of time resting so that the bones can heal. Unfortunately, this sedentary period can result in weakening and atrophy of the patient's muscles due to lack of exercise.

The back muscles can also be injured during the procedure itself. Dr. Sang-Hyuk Min of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Dankook University in Korea notes that postoperative bed rest, the use of back braces and a program of activity modification may be the key elements influencing the health of the back muscles after spinal fusion surgery.

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