|Spinal fusion is a surgical technique that is performed to link together (“fuse”) one or more vertebrae within the spine so there is no longer motion between them. Fusion is still the gold standard for surgical treatment of painful discs and/or spinal instability.
Your spine is made up of individual bone segments called vertebrae. Strong connective tissue holds one vertebra to the next and acts as a cushion between the vertebrae. This cushion is called a disc, and is what allows us to bend our backs and necks forward, backward and side-to-side. The type and degree of motion depends on what level of the spine the vertebrae are located: cervical (neck), thoracic (chest), or lumbar (lower back).
When there is a problem with your spine (see “When is Spinal Fusion Necessary” below), Dr. Blankenship may recommend a spinal fusion to eliminate the motion of the affected portion of your spine in an effort to eliminate the source of your back problem.
When is Spinal Fusion Necessary?
Because Dr. Blankenship takes a conservative approach to any type of spine surgery, a spinal fusion will be recommended only after other non-surgical treatments have failed, or if your condition can only be improved through surgery.
Some of the potential reasons Dr. Blankenship may consider spinal fusion surgery include:
• Some types of vertebral fracture
The goal of spinal fusion is to get a solid union between the vertebrae. Depending on a number of different factors, Dr. Blankenship may also use supplemental instrumentation such as plates, screws, and cages. These factors include your underlying problem, age, and number of levels of the spine being fused.
Regardless of whether or not instrumentation is used, it’s important that bone or bone substitutes be used to fuse the vertebrae together. These are either taken from another bone in the patient’s body, or from a bone bank. For years, your own hip bone was considered the gold standard fusion material. Dr. Blankenship began over a decade ago to look for other solutions. The graft site for hip graft harvest was universally painful and often would leave the patients in more pain, just in a different location.
The length of time you will need to be off work depends on the type of surgery you have and the kind of work you do. It can vary from patient to patient depending on multiple factors. Most patients are able to return to work in the first four weeks. Some require longer recovery times.
Your decision whether or not to undergo spinal fusion needs to be made carefully after discussing it thoroughly with Dr. Blankenship, your family, and weighing your options carefully.