Spinal Fusion Side Effects

Spinal fusion is a surgical procedure used to join two or more vertebrae in the spine permanently. This typically occurs with metal screws and/or plates. There are certainly times when this type of surgical intervention is medically necessary, such as in extreme cases of spinal stenosis, spinal cord compression, or a failed trial of conservative care.

Spinal fusion should be the very last option when considering a type of treatment for spine pain. Now more than ever, spine surgeons are looking for other options for their patients. I communicate with surgeons often to educate them on the new non-invasive treatment options for conditions like stenosis, sciatica, bulging discs, herniated discs, and degenerative discs, to name a few. In fact, as of this writing, just one week ago, a neurosurgeon came into my office to learn about the technology we use at Crossroads Brain & Spine.

During our conversation, he educated me on his minimally invasive approach to spine surgery. He’s one of a few providers using this technique in greater Indianapolis. He went on to tell me that a prudent surgeon should be selective about who is a candidate for their specific type of procedure. This doctor continued that many patients who come to his office and are in pain and desperate for relief are disqualified for his type of procedure for one reason or another.

He was relieved that Crossroads Brain & Spine has non-surgical treatment options for many different spine conditions, including spinal decompression, Class IV laser therapy, and non-manipulative spine care (upper cervical spine care).

While it can be effective for stabilizing the spine and relieving certain types of back pain, there are potential side effects and risks associated with this procedure. As he stated, the risks of these complications are sometimes not worth the potential success.

  1. Pain and Discomfort: Patients may experience pain and discomfort at the surgical site following surgery. This is common during the initial recovery period and typically improves over time.
  2. Infection: As with any surgical procedure, there is a risk of infection at the site of the incision or around the implanted hardware (such as screws or rods). Signs of infection include increased pain, redness, swelling, or fever.
  3. Failed Fusion: In some cases, the bones (vertebrae) may not fully fuse together, leading to a condition called “nonunion” or “pseudoarthrosis.” This can result in persistent pain and may require additional surgery. Failed back surgery for a fusion occurs 30-46% of the time.
  4. Adjacent Segment Degeneration: Spinal fusion can alter the biomechanics of the spine, potentially placing increased stress on adjacent segments. This can accelerate the degeneration of nearby spinal discs or joints, leading to future problems.
  5. Hardware Issues: The hardware used in spinal fusion (such as screws, plates, or rods) may cause discomfort or irritation. Rarely can these implants break or move out of position, necessitating further intervention.
  6. Nerve Damage: During surgery, there is a small risk of injury to nearby nerves, which can cause symptoms like weakness, numbness, or tingling. In severe cases, nerve damage may be permanent.
  7. Blood Clots: Surgery carries a risk of blood clots forming in the legs (deep vein thrombosis) or traveling to the lungs (pulmonary embolism). This risk can be minimized with early mobilization and other preventive measures.
  8. Chronic Pain: Some patients may continue to experience chronic pain even after spinal fusion. This could be due to various factors, including incomplete pain relief or the development of new issues over time.

Regardless of who the surgeon is or how bad your symptoms are, it’s vital for patients considering spinal fusion to weigh the benefits, risks, and alternatives. Some complications need to be discussed with your spine surgeon. The main reason that so many physicians are choosing non-surgical spinal decompression for their patients is twofold.

The success rate for this type of treatment is extremely high. According to the McClure Study, there is an 88-92% success rate with non-surgical spinal decompression. There is never any guarantee in healthcare. However, that is an unparalleled success rate considering the severity of many of these patients. Non-surgical spinal decompression is a treatment that is cleared by the FDA as safe and effective with very few complications.

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