If your back pain is caused by a bone disease, such as osteoarthritis, non-invasive treatments may not give you relief from the pain. The cartilage in your spine that is worn down from the disease prevents those treatments from reducing the pain. Surgery to stabilize and secure your spine may be necessary to get you moving again without pain. If your doctor has recommended spinal fusion, here is what you can expect from the surgery and during the recovery afterward.
Surgery Targets the Damaged Vertebrae
The bone disease has worn down the tissues that connect and cushion the vertebrae as they move against each other. Without the cushion, pain and inflammation occurs as bone rubs against bone. These diseases are not curable or reversible, so the focus of the surgery is to prevent the movement of the bones on each other and the resulting inflammation. Spinal fusion causes the affected vertebrae to fuse together so they can no longer move. Without this movement in your spine, your pain is reduced or eliminated entirely.
What Happens During Surgery
This is considered major surgery and is done while you're under a general anesthetic. Your orthopedic surgeon makes an incision in your lower back to expose the painful portion of your spine. They may remove all or part of the cartilage between the affected vertebrae. While the surgeon is doing this, another doctor removes tiny bits of bone, typically from your pelvis, to be used to start the fusion process.
When the old, worn out bone and cartilage has been removed, the bits of bone are placed in the space between the vertebrae. This is called a bone graft and is done to stimulate the bone tissue in the adjoining vertebrae to fuse into one unit. It will take several weeks for the vertebrae to fuse securely to each other with the help of the bone graft.
To prevent your spine from moving while the fusion is taking place, metal hooks with rods attached between them are placed on one or both sides of your spine. Any movement in the area of the fusion will slow down the healing. The rods make sure the spine is stable so the fusion will be successful.
After the Surgery and Before You Go Home
You'll spend several days in the hospital after the surgery. The staff will monitor your incision for any signs of infection. An infection will also slow down the fusion process.
You'll learn how to move to prevent putting stress on your lower back. Getting in and out of bed or a chair without bending the spine is important. At first, you may need crutches or a walker to support yourself as you get up and down. But you'll soon learn how to use your arms and hands to sit, stand and lay down while keeping your spine straight.
Completing Your Recovery at Home
After a few days of rest at home, your doctor will have you begin physical therapy. This consists of exercises to help you strengthen the muscles in your lower back. Strong back muscles will support your spine better during the rest of your recovery. They will also help you perform your normal daily activities with limited motion in your lower back.
With stronger muscles in your back supporting you and the bone fusion preventing movement in your spine, you'll be able to move again without the pain in your lower back.
Speak to an orthopedic surgeon for more information.