What is Spine Fusion?
- Posted on: Jan 15 2018
If you follow sports, you’ve heard that Tiger Woods, one of the world’s most famous athletes, had spinal fusion surgery early this year after three earlier surgical attempts at relieving his intense back pain failed. He returned to play in December in his first golf tournament in almost a year, and he swung the club at speeds akin to his younger, healthier days.
Now everyone is wondering what is this miracle of back fusion.
Since fusion surgery is one of the solutions we use at DFW Center for Spinal Disorders for chronic debilitating back pain, let’s get into what it is and how it works.
What is the lumbar spine?
The spine is consists of five sections. The cervical spine makes up the neck and has seven vertebrae. The thoracic spine has 12 vertebrae that attach to the ribs. The lumbar spine has five vertebrae that make up the lower back. The sacrum has five bones which are fused but aren’t vertebrae. The sacrum attaches to the coccyx, which is made up of four tiny bones and used to be our tail in our prehistoric ancestors.
Most fusion surgeries are performed on the cervical or lumbar spine, as both of these areas of the spine have the most movement and support the most weight.
What is lumbar spinal fusion?
The problems with pain often arise from the movement that is impinging on nerves roots exiting the spinal canal. Degenerative disc disease, where the quality of the discs (the soft gel-filled pads between the vertebrae) deteriorates, is often the cause of this, especially in the lumbar spine. A herniated disc may be pushing outward onto nearby nerves. Or bone spurs in the spinal column may be causing compression of the nerves.
Healing methods such as cortisone injections are the first non-surgical treatment option. If they don’t work, often the first surgical options involve creating room for the nerves. These surgeries are called decompression surgery. Their goal is to remove pieces of the vertebrae that are compressing nerves. The team at DFW performs these surgeries with microsurgery methods. Mr. Woods had three of these types of decompression surgeries, but they didn’t solve his nerve pain.
Spinal fusion is designed to stop the motion at a painful vertebral segment by fusing two vertebrae together. There are many different methods for fusion surgery, but they all involve this process:
- Removing the damaged disc
- Inserting a spacer or cage to maintain the proper disc spacing
- Adding bone graft material
- Stabilizing the two vertebrae with screws and rods
After this surgery, the bone grafts cause the two vertebrae to fuse into a single piece. This eliminates any movement at that joint segment, and it usually removes all of the pain that the movement triggered.
When watching Mr. Woods swing the golf club in December as he did in his younger, healthier back days, it’s obvious that this surgery was the right option for him.
Posted in: Back Pain