Spinal Fusion vs. Alternative Treatments: When to Choose One

Updated on April 22nd, 2020
spinal fusion

Spinal fusion is a surgical method or a welding process that corrects the spinal problem by fixing the small bones in it. The basic idea is to fuse together two or more vertebrae so that they heal into a single, solid bone. Here, they basically fuse two or more spinal bones or vertebrae into one solid bone. Having a brief idea about the spine can help in better understanding the process of spinal fusion.

  Important Parts and Functions of the Spine

Spine or the backbone is one of the most critical parts of the body that runs from the base of the skull to the pelvis. It is generally divided into three main parts, namely, the neck, thoracic, and lumbar regions(1).

The spine also three main functions, and they are as follow:

  • Protecting the spinal cord, nerve roots, and several internal organs.
  • Providing support and balance to maintain the upright posture.
  • Supporting flexible motion.

The spine forms an “S” shape when viewed from the side, and the curved shape is known to support the spine in withstanding stress with an even distribution of body weight.

Cervical Spine or Neck Region – Contains seven vertebrae, wherein the first two help in the neck movement. It is also a first curve that is slightly bent inwards and gives out a “C” shape. Alongside protecting the spinal cord, the cervical spine is also known to protect the skull and give structure to the neck.

Thoracic Spine – It consists of 12 vertebrae and bends outwards that gives a “C” shape. The thoracic spine helps in holding the rib cage and protecting the lungs and heart.

Lumbar Spine or Lower Back – In general, it contains five vertebrae; however, some people may also have six of them. The lumbar spine is the largest vertebral region that bears most of the body’s weight.

The sacrum is a region below the lumbar spine, which is made of several vertebrae, but they fuse in the fetus stage itself (in the womb).

Spinal Injuries

Similar to other body regions, the spine or vertebrae may be damaged due to injuries or various health conditions. Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and spondylitis are common health conditions that may affect the spine. Various bacterial, viral, and fungal infections, including syphilis and tuberculosis, can damage the spine.

The two most common spinal injuries are dislocations and fractures. It may happen due to numerous reasons.

Below listed are a few common ones:

  • Hyperflexion, where the spinal column is damaged due to extra force that pushes it forward and downward.
  • Shattering or fracture of spinal bones or vertebrae from an injury.
  • Weakness or partial dislocation of vertebrae due to abnormal movements of the bone or damage to the muscles and ligaments.
  • Dislocation of the vertebra where it may lock over each other.

These injuries may become a huge problem and also require immediate attention.

Symptoms:

Most of the symptoms of spinal injury are visible. They are:

  • Neck or back pain
  • Numbness
  • Muscle spasm
  • Weakness
  • Tingling sensation, and
  • Changes in bowel movements

In rare cases, when the injury is grave, which may also damage the spinal cord and can cause paralysis.

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Spinal Fusion

As mentioned in the beginning, spinal fusion is a surgical process that joins two or more vertebrae into a single one. The primary goal of this surgery is to stop the unnecessary movement between two bones and prevent any complications. It also helps in avoiding any damage or discomfort to the muscles, nerves, and ligaments.

During this surgical process, the surgeon may place bonelike materials like metal plates, screws, or rods that hold the vertebrae and help in recovering from the damage.

Advanced medical technology is enabling surgeons to perform spinal fusion with minimal invasion with smaller cuts or incisions. However, it may also depend on the severity or length of the condition.

spinal cord - infographic
Image:Shutterstock

Preparing for the Surgery

Spinal fusion, like other surgical procedures, may require some testing where the surgeon may test for specific health conditions to avoid any complications during and post-surgery. Below listed are a few such measures:

  • May ask the person to quit smoking or limit alcohol at least a few days before the surgery.
  • Check for any infections or illnesses, including colds or flu.
  • Check for any inflammations or conditions that may damage the bone.
  • Check for any medications, treatments which may otherwise interact with the surgery.

How Exactly Does Spinal Fusion Help?

Spinal fusion basically eliminates unwanted or unnecessary motion between two vertebrates. It helps in mitigating the effect of the damaged spine by preventing stretching of nerves, ligaments, and muscles surrounding it. The surgeon may also suggest spinal fusion if the bones are putting extra pressure on the spinal nerves.

Spinal fusion may also help in improving stability, correcting deformities, reducing pain, or other associated symptoms. Other conditions where spinal fusion may help are:

  • Correcting or fixing the curvature of the spine
  • Strengthening or stabilizing the spine
  • Stabilizing or restoring the normal posture of the spine after the removal of a herniated disk.

Spinal surgery is also highly beneficial to people who may be suffering from bulging or a ruptured disk, bone spur, and spinal nerves or muscles that are under chronic stress or pressure.

Spinal fusion may limit the motion, but in majority cases, it is performed only on small segments, so the limitation may be minimal.

STEM cell therapy is also growing in prominence and is considered one of the best alternative approaches for spinal fusion. It can also help in reducing back pain, improving disc hydration, calming inflammation, reducing the stress, and alleviating the overall condition. The therapy can be very beneficial to athletes or sports-persons who want to get back to normal life and participate in their usual sports activities.

Alternatives to Spinal Fusion:

In some cases, where the injury is minor, or the damage is minimal or not progressive, the surgeon may first suggest alternative treatments. These therapies or treatments can play a significant role in the early stages and prevent complications that can treat the condition before needing spinal fusion.

1. Chiropractic Manipulation:

It uses hands to manipulate, adjust, or stimulate the spine. The treatment is known to provide quick relief and also alleviate any abnormalities or deformities in the spine. Note: It is not safe for those suffering from spinal infections, conditions such as arthritis, spinal cord problems, or those who may have fractures or broken vertebrae.

2. Back Brace:

Back Brace
Image:Shutterstock

If the person is suffering from scoliosis, a back brace may be the first recommendation by a surgeon before going for spinal fusion. It can help in correcting the posture and inhibiting any deformities.

3. Medications:

Before going for spinal fusion, doctors may also suggest certain medications that can reduce inflammation, pain or any health condition that may be triggering or bothering the spine.

4. Diet:

A healthy diet can prevent or mitigate the effects or inhibit the progress of inflammation or calcium deficiency that may otherwise cause chronic spine problems in the future. Obesity is also another health condition that may cause spine problems.

Hence, if you have spine problems, check, consult a doctor to find the core problem, and then check if diet can help in mitigating the effects or inhibiting the progress.

5. Acupuncture:

It is a technique wherein the practitioner inserts tiny needles to regulate specific energy channels or points that can help in improving the blood circulation. It can also help in easing the stiffness or stress in the muscles, which could be affecting the spine.

6. Acupressure:

Acupressure is another similar approach that uses pressure instead of needles.

7. Physical Therapy:

It involves specific exercises and stretches suggested by licensed practitioners. These can help in relieving the tension, strengthening the muscles and bones, enhancing the flexibility of the spine, and also improving the support to the spine.

The therapy can also play a significant role in reducing the pain and exhibiting a soothing effect.

Spinal Fusion Recovery Tips

Depending on the health condition, progress, any reactions, doctors may release the patient within a few days after the surgery. In the beginning, the doctor may suggest certain exercises to ease the pain, strengthen the back, and improve flexibility. You should practice them as recommended by the surgeon or under the guidance of a physical therapist.

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1. Medications:

The doctor may suggest medications to mitigate the pain, fight any infections, reduce inflammations, and also enrich the healing process. Make sure that you are regular on these medications and do not skip them at any cost.

2. Protein-Rich Food:

The body needs it as they are the primary building blocks of muscles and also strengthen them and improve necessary healing. They may also help the antibodies which fight the infections.

3. Walker or Crutches:

Use them as they help in supporting the spine as it heals. Make sure to use it for the time period suggested by the doctor or a physical therapist. The fusion process of the spine may take around 6 weeks, and so it is wise to use it for that period.

4. Ice or Heat Packs:

Ice packs can help in alleviating the inflammation or pain, while heat packs can help in improving the circulation.

5. Grabber:

You can use a grabber which can help in picking up items without bending or stretching your back.

6. Recliner:

recliner
Image:Shutterstock

Use a recliner sofa to sit with legs raised and upper back propped up. It can help in easing the discomfort. If you do not have a recliner, you may also use pillows.

7. Sleeping:

Ask your surgeon or a physical therapist for the best sleeping or resting positions.

8. Massage therapy:

It can help in easing the stress & tension, improving blood circulation, which can, in turn, help in augmenting the healing process. Note: Make sure to check with your doctor before undergoing a massage therapy and also make sure to get it only by a licensed practitioner.

Precautionary Measures to Take

There are specific precautionary measures that a person must take post-surgery to avoid any complications. Following these methods, in general, can also inhibit any triggers of spinal damage or injuries.

  • Quit smoking.
  • Do not bend or twist the back.
  • Avoid running, jogging, or cycling.
  • Do not drive vehicle at least for the first few months (4-6 months)
  • Avoid extreme flexing of the muscles.
  • Do not practice yoga, exercise, or go to the gym until the doctor suggests it.
  • Avoid wearing high heels, tight shoes, or any footwear that may cause discomfort to the feet.
  • Do not stress the back or spine by lifting excess weights (usually more than 5 pounds).
  • Make sure to keep a check on your weight and diet. Get a proper diet regimen by consulting a nutritionist, and you may also show it to your doctor before adopting it.

Complications Involved With Spinal Fusion:

The advanced technologies can limit any complications.

However, in some cases, it may lead to complications which are listed below:

  • Blood loss (may result in trauma or shock)
  • Allergic reactions to anesthesia
  • Nerve or muscle damage
  • Severe pain, stiffness, or discomfort
  • Disrupted bowel movements
  • Infections or septic wounds at the site of the surgery
  • Fever
  • Shivering

Even in such conditions, the patient may be put under observation wherein the doctors can alleviate the conditions through medications or surgeries if required.

Bottom Line:

The spine is the most important part of the body that protects the vital organs and also supports the body posture.

However, some health conditions or injuries may damage the spine. In the early stages of infections or health conditions and minor injuries, alternate therapies or treatments can help in mitigating the spinal damage. However, in severe cases where there is a severe blow to the spine or severe damage, spinal fusion may be the only option.


FAQs

1. How Long Does Spinal Fusion Surgery Take?

Spinal fusion surgery can take anywhere between 2 hours to 7 hours, or even longer. It depends on the number of vertebrae fixes, the condition of the vertebrates, or any damage to the surrounding muscles, nerves, or the ligaments.

2. How long does the pain last after spinal fusion?

The pain may usually last for the first four weeks after surgery. However, it can be mitigated with medications and physical therapies.

3. What Is the Spinal Fusion Surgery Success Rate?

The spinal fusion success rate is around 80%, where the patients are happy and see an improvement. Spinal fusion can bring back the spine to the normal condition it used to be. But, it can be very close, which improves mobility, flexibility and also reduces the pain which could otherwise be associated with the damaged spine.

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