Spinal Fusion Surgery

Been learning a lot lately about a medical procedure known as Spinal Fusion surgery. In the photo below we see a model of how this procedure turns out. The blue arrow indicates the spinal cord. The red arrow shows the space in between two vertebrae where the disk has been removed.

Here's a brief description from ortho-info.org:

Spinal fusion eliminates motion between vertebrae. It also prevents the stretching of nerves and surrounding ligaments and muscles. It is an option when motion is the source of pain, such as movement that occurs in a part of the spine that is arthritic. The theory is if the painful vertebrae do not move, they should not hurt.

If you have leg pain in addition to back pain, your surgeon may also perform a decompression (laminectomy). This procedure involves removing bone and diseased tissues that can put pressure on spinal nerves.

Bone Grafting

All spinal fusions use some type of bone material, called a bone graft, to help promote the fusion. Generally, small pieces of bone are placed into the space between the vertebrae to be fused.

A bone graft is primarily used to stimulate bone healing. It increases bone production and helps the vertebrae heal together into a solid bone. Sometimes larger, solid pieces are used to provide immediate structural support to the vertebrae.

Today, several artificial bone graft materials have also been developed.

Demineralized bone matrices (DBMs)

Calcium is removed from cadaver bone to create DBMs. Without the mineral, the bone can be changed into a putty or gel-like consistency. DBMs are usually combined with other grafts, and may contain proteins that help in bone healing.

Bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs)

These very powerful synthetic bone-forming proteins promote a solid fusion. They are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in the spine in certain situations. Autografts may not be needed when BMPs are used.


Synthetic calcium/phosphate materials are similar in shape and consistency to autograft bone.


After bone grafting, the vertebrae need to be held together to help the fusion progress. In many cases, surgeons will use plates, screws, and rods to help hold the spine still. This is called internal fixation, and may increase the rate of successful healing. With the added stability from internal fixation, most patients are able to move earlier after surgery.

Why am I bringing all this up, you may be asking? Because this is the procedure I'll be undergoing Monday afternoon (12/13/10). Well, almost ... the photos above show the procedure for removing one disk and fusing two vertebrae; I'm having two disks removed and three vertebrae fused. Yup, lucky me; I get two extra screws for the price of four!

Yeah, I'm a little scared ... okay, a lot scared!

But I'm in the hands of a wonderful neurosurgeon, one of the best around from near as I can gather.

From what they tell me I'll be in the hospital for 4, maybe 5 days after the surgery. Surprisingly, they'll have me up and moving around within a few hours after getting out of recovery.

After discharge I'm pretty much shut down for the next 30 days and will have to wear a back brace while doing anything other then laying in bed. After that I'll be doing about 8 weeks of rehab before we even start thinking about things like returning to work, etc.

So, wish me luck and hey ... save me a seat for when I get back!

Gareth — The Celtic Camera Photography


Damien Franco said...


I feel your pain. Literally.

I went through a similar surgery 7 years ago (I believe we spoke about this before?) and I can offer these short tidbits.

1. If you're in sharp acute pain now you'll almost certainly feel an instant relief from that pain when you wake up. Sure, you'll be sore and numb from the surgery, and have to deal with different pains that a surgery produces but, if you're nerves were being impacted, then that excruciating pain will be gone. Nice!

2. The rehab sucks. I'm not gonna lie. But it's worth giving the rehab 100% effort. Further, they'll likely give you exercises and stretches to maintain your flexibility and stabilizing muscles once rehab is completed. Do them as prescribed. I didn't always keep up with my stretches and exercises and am paying a fairly hefty price for that right now.

3. Eat often and healthy to keep your metabolism as high as possible. This is because you'll be very immobile for a long time and packing on pounds to your midsection is a very bad thing you can do to your spine as it's trying to heal. You don't need that extra weight pulling on your midsection. I lived off of small frozen dinners ever 3 or four hours and only managed to pack on a few pounds. Of course choose wisely and watch your caloric intake.

4. Get a subscription to Netflix! I spent most of my recovery time healing at home watching movies while drifting in and out of sleep. Reading was hard for me as the drugs didn't really give me a chance to concentrate very well on, well, anything really.

I hope this helps.

I'll keep you in my thoughts.

greygirl25 said...

Wishing you all of the best. It does sound quite scary, but a good attitude can help a lot.

Send up smoke signals or something so that we know you are doing OK.

Beth@playinwiththepaulsens! said...

I had the surgery done about 6 years ago. I too had a top surgeon at a well known hospital. It is a major surgery but I know that since it is major they only do it if you will be better off giving it a go. I had an unfortunate complication requiring a second surgery 7 days later. It was rough, but while I am not 100% better it made my life 100% better after having it done. Life is short and it was worth the risks to improve the quality of my life and my families lifestyle as a result. There are a million things I can now do that I could not do before. There are things I can now do that the dr nor I thought I would be able to do.
If you want to know about my complication, I will tell you about it but I don't want to worry you if you are anxious about it already. It is worth the surgery to improve your lifestyle so dramatically. I will pray all goes well. Thank you for sharing your art/photography. I have been following your site for a while now and just never have commented.
Merry Christmas!

Amy said...

just reading this...and want to say good luck! and best to you on your recovery. my daughter had her entire spine fused on july 12th of this year and she has doone amazingly well...no more pain at all! you will have success too.... I wrote about it on my blog back in july....amy

Amy said...

you can read about it here
again best wishes!