Spinal fusion, a procedure that allows vertebrae to merge together, can be performed on different areas of the back – the cervical region, the thoracic part and the lumbar section. The 33 vertebrae (spinal bones) of the back are divided into five areas for medical purposes in which the cervical region is the top seven bones, the thoracic is the middle 12 bones, the lumbar area is the lower back, or five vertebra, and the sacrum and the coxyx are the lowest bones that are naturally fused together. Spinal fusion can be a minimally invasive surgery that can remove immense pain that an individual feels when they move their back.
Reasons for Needing Spinal Fusion
Traumas, spine degeneration, infection, tumors of the spine or spinal abnormality such as scoliosis are all reasons that an individual may need spinal fusion. Most often, the pain is caused by the compression of a nerve coming from the spinal cord that has been pinched by the vertebrae or the disc. The discs of the back, which are like shock absorbers, become more brittle with age and with constant twisting and bending and sometimes with a sudden movement or blow will often rupture, slip or become herniated. The break in this cushioning allows new blood vessels or nerves to grow where they don’t belong, and this can be a source of pain. Scoliosis – an unnatural curvature of the spine – will be treated by an orthopedic surgeon who may recommend spinal fusion to correct it. A recent study in Spine magazine noted that individuals with scoliosis 21 years old and younger that were treated with spinal fusion ten years ago maintained a fairly healthy spine adjacent to the fusion and didn’t show any major degeneration.
The Procedure of Spinal Fusion
With minimally invasive spinal fusion, a small incision, less than an inch, is made and specialized tools are inserted to remove the damaged disc and replace it – using several different approaches. The orthopedic surgeon is able to visualize the procedure by placing an endoscope – a small lighted tube with a camera on the end of it – into the opening along with the microscopic tools and is able to see the procedure on a large monitor. Bone from a tissue bank or even from the patient’s own hip can be used to fill the space and create the fusion, and other methods include using metal screws or hollow metal cylinders filled with bone graft in the spinal column. Osteocytes are specialized cells that are placed with the inserted bone that encourage new cell growth to reinforce the bone. After the surgery, the patient will be asked to come in for diagnostic imaging at six weeks, three months, six months and yearly to ensure that the fusion procedure is healing properly and not affecting other nearby tissues.
While spinal fusion is an effective treatment to stopping movement along the spine where it is causing either back pain or referred pain, it is an option that must be considered carefully with an orthopedic surgeon.