What you can expect

By Mayo Clinic Staff

During spinal fusion

Surgeons perform spinal fusion with a general anesthetic, so you're unconscious during the procedure. Surgeons have developed a variety of techniques for performing spinal fusion surgery. The technique your surgeon uses depends on the location of the vertebrae to be fused and the reason for the spinal fusion.

Generally, the procedure involves the following:

  • Incision. To gain access to the vertebrae being fused, the surgeon makes an incision in one of three locations: in your back directly over your spine, on either side of your spine, or in your abdomen or throat so that your surgeon can access the spine from the front. The muscles and blood vessels then are moved away from the spine as much as possible to allow the surgeon to clearly see your spine.
  • Bone graft preparation. The bone grafts that actually fuse two vertebrae together may come from a bone bank or from your own body, usually from your pelvis. If your own bone is used, the surgeon makes an incision above your pelvic bone, removes a small portion of it, and then closes the incision.
  • Fusion. To fuse the vertebrae together permanently, the surgeon places the bone graft material between the vertebrae. Metal plates, screws or rods may be used to help hold the vertebrae together while the bone graft heals.

In selected cases, some surgeons use bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) instead of bone grafts. BMPs are synthetic substances that help promote bone growth and speed the fusion of the vertebrae. This makes it easier for surgeons to perform spinal fusion through several smaller incisions, rather than through one larger incision.

After spinal fusion

A hospital stay of two to three days is usually required following spinal fusion. Depending on the location and extent of your surgery, you may experience some pain and discomfort but the pain can usually be well controlled with medications.

After you go home, contact your doctor if you exhibit signs of infection, such as:

  • Redness, tenderness or swelling
  • Wound drainage
  • Shaking chills
  • Fever higher than 100 F (38 C)

It may take several months for the affected bones in your spine to heal and fuse together. Your doctor may recommend that you wear a brace for a time to keep your spine aligned correctly. Physical rehabilitation can teach you how to move, sit, stand and walk in a manner that keeps your spine properly aligned.

Oct. 25, 2012