What is spinal fusion?
Spinal fusion is a type of back surgery where two or more of the vertebrae in your spine are joined together.
Understanding your spine
There are 4 main parts to your spine: your vertebrae, joints, discs and nerves.
Your spine has 24 vertebrae plus your sacrum and coccyx at the base. That’s 26 motion segments that give your spine its flexibility.
Your vertebrae are like hollow, bony building blocks that stack on top of each other to create your spinal column. That strong, bony tunnel houses and protects your nerves and spinal cord. Various muscles, tendons and ligaments support your spine.
Sandwiched between each vertebrae is a shock-absorbing disc that prevents your bones rubbing against each other. As you get older, your discs may degenerate. The loss of that comfy cushioning affects your vertebrae, as can other conditions like arthritis.
We divide your spine into three sections. Working from the top down, there’s your:
- Cervical spine: Your neck has 7 small vertebrae known as C1-C7
- Thoracic spine: Your chest has 12 vertebrae known as T1-T12. Your ribs attach to this part of your spine.
- Lumbar spine: Your lower back has 5 large vertebrae known as L1-L5 which bear the bulk of your body’s weight.
Spinal fusion can be performed on any part of your spine.
What does spinal fusion do?
Spinal fusion aims to improve your spine’s stability, correct any deformity, and ease your back pain.
You may benefit from spinal fusion if you have:
- Too much motion between certain vertebrae due to severe arthritis, spondylolisthesis, degenerative disc disease, injury or previous surgery
- A spinal deformity such as scoliosis that is affecting your quality of life.
How do you decide if spinal fusion is the right choice?
Spinal fusion may ease pain and improve quality of life if your back pain is due to a mechanical problem in your spine.
We begin with a careful examination alongside imaging studies to be sure that your back pain relates to a fracture, deformity or instability in the spine.
Our care pathway is carefully designed to ensure you only progress to surgery if you really need it. If conservative treatments have not worked and if we’re confident that a mechanical problem is causing your back pain, we may recommend spinal fusion.
What happens during spinal fusion?
Spinal fusion is done in an operating theatre. You’ll be given a general anesthetic so will be unconscious throughout.
The exact details of your operation depend on which parts of your spine are being fused. We may gain access to your spine through your throat, neck, abdomen (ALIF procedure), back (PLIF procedure) or side (OLIF procedure).
Then we prepare a bone graft, either by taking a small portion of your pelvic bone or by using a sample from a bone bank. This bone graft is placed between your vertebrae and will eventually grow across them and fuse them into one piece. To help that process along, Dr Edis will insert metal plates, screws or rods to hold the vertebrae together while the bone graft heals.
Traditionally, these operations involved large incisions and retraction (pulling aside) of muscles to gain access to your spine. Wherever possible, Dr Edis favours minimally invasive spinal fusion surgery, which aims to reduce post-op pain and generally involves a shorter hospital stay.
Is it hard to move after spinal fusion?
Many patients wonder if spinal fusion limits mobility.
Spinal fusion is often done to stabilise your spine. That means it was probably moving too much before your surgery. It should be more stable afterwards but you should still be able to carry on normal activities and bend from your hips.
Spinal fusion is rarely done along your whole spine, meaning your natural movement remains in most places. If you do have a long fusion, you may be stiffer than normal but your overall physical function may be better than it was before.
Often, your movement is already restricted before surgery due to damage or disease and the resulting pain. When the pain eases after surgery, you may find movement easier than before.
How the Victorian Orthopaedic Spine Service can help
If you’re dealing with ongoing back pain and wonder if spinal fusion would help, please ask your GP for a referral and book a consultation with Dr Edis.
After a thorough assessment, we’ll be able to advise you on the best treatment option to reduce your pain.
*All information is general in nature, patients should consider their own personal circumstances and seek a second opinion. Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks.