Spinal fusion is a common surgical procedure that Dr. Albert performs regularly. Often, fusions are performed on the lumbar spine. This spinal segment, ranging from L1 to L5, is susceptible to injury because it bears a fair amount of the body’s overall weight. The lumbar spine is involved in support as well as the range of motion for multiple movements. Because of this, the vertebrae here are larger than those located in higher spinal segments. Even with their larger size, lumbar vertebrae can degrade under the forces they encounter daily. In some cases, surgery is the best solution for painful symptoms related to a lumbar injury. When patients are told they need surgery, their first questions often revolve around recovery. We discuss that here.
Why would I need spinal fusion?
Spinal fusion joins two or more vertebrae to restore structural stability and reduce nerve compression. In most cases, surgery is performed to address:
- Degenerative disc disease. This condition is an ongoing process of deterioration resultant from some form of injury to the spine. Injury is not always traumatic. In fact, most cases of degenerative disc disease relate to normal body movements such as lifting a heavy object. Discs lack blood supply so they have no capacity to self-repair. Once a disc ruptures, its condition progressively worsens.
- Spondylolisthesis is the clinical term for a slipped disc. Discs that move out of place compress on nearby nerve roots and cause pain.
Fusion involves the placement of surgical hardware such as screws and rods alongside bone graft material. A small amount of bone or bone spurs are also removed as needed to create adequate space for nerve roots. Over time, new bone will grow between the two connected vertebrae, creating one single bony structure.
Recovering from Spinal Fusion
The objective of spinal fusion surgery is to create an environment for bone grafts to grow fully into one single piece. This can take time. Patients may initially spend a few days in the hospital. Once home, comfort is managed with prescription pain medication. Depending on medication use, patients can expect to resume driving in two to three weeks. Light work, such as a desk job, maybe resumed in four to six weeks. More strenuous activity can resume after 12 weeks. In most cases, a full return to normal activity occurs in about six months. It takes this long for the bone graft to stabilize.