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Spinal Fusions May Offer An Improved Quality of Life

series recap

Part One: Many spinal conditions can be treated non-operatively.
Part Two: If spinal surgery is suggested, it doesn't automatically require fusion.  

I can understand how the recommendation for a spinal fusion may be one of the most frightening things a patient can hear. There is a lot of misinformation regarding spinal fusions, but it is my responsibility to help the patient understand that a spinal fusion may offer a better qualify of life, rather than having them adapt to the pain. Spinal fusion involves using a type of implant {metal, plastic, bone} to hold two bones of the spine together, and bone graft to weld the bones to one another. A good analogy is to think of placing cement or grout between the two bones, which ultimately hardens, much like a broken bone mending in a cast. Once this process occurs, those two bones are now welded into one solid piece (a fusion) and that level of the spine will be unable to move again.  

This process can seem intimidating given the immobility the patient will experience at the fusion site, but is actually beneficial in a lot of circumstances. For example, spinal fusions are a great way to treat pathologic motion {painful motion}, or instability in the back. For patients with spinal instability, if surgery is needed, a fusion is almost always the best option. The same is true for fractures {broken bones} in the spine or spinal tumors in which the tumor damages a bone in the spine creating instability. 

Another example in which a spinal fusion would offer a better quality of life is for patients that develop spondylolisthesis {an instability with slippage of one bone on top of another in the spine} or a spinal deformity such as scoliosis. For patients with these problems, mal-alignment and instability between the bones of the spine is a large cause of the patient's pain and the only way to alleviate this instability with surgery is to realign and fuse the bones together. Any other surgical option that does not provide stability would not likely improve the pain and actually have a higher likelihood that the condition will continue to worsen in the future. Additionally, alternatives to spinal fusion are not a good option because as time passes, and the spine continues to move, those implants will eventually loosen and cause even bigger problems.


The x-ray on the left shows a patient with severe scoliosis which is effecting heart
and lung function. The x-ray on the right shows correction of the scoliosis 
with implants and spinal fusion. The patient's breathing problems
improved with surgery. 

Our goal at Virginia Spine Institute is to not only improve a patient's pain, but to get them back to the activities they enjoyed before they were disrupted by pain. While spinal fusion surgery presents unique changes to a patient's life, it can offer the best chance of an improved quality of life. 

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