Lumbar Spine Fusion for Degenerative Disc Disease

Lumbar Spine Fusion for Degenerative Disc Disease

fusion postop
Fig 1:
Progress of fusion after 6 months
(larger view)

A lumbar spine fusion is a type of back surgery designed to treat low back pain from degenerative disc disease. It is called a "spine fusion" because the surgery involves placing small morsels of bone either in the front of the spine (in the disc space) and/or along the back of the spine (in the posterolateral gutter) so that the bone grows together and fuses that section of the spine.

The fusion is designed to eliminate motion in that fused segment of the spine, thereby decreasing or eliminating the back pain created by the motion.

The spine is not actually fused at the time of the surgery. Instead, the surgery creates the conditions for the spine to be able to fuse and the fusion is a process that will set up over a 3 to 6 month (and up to 18 month) period of time following the spinal fusion surgery (see figure 1).

Lumbar spinal fusion surgery for low back pain caused by degenerative disc disease is usually considered an option for patients who:

  • Have not found sufficient pain relief from extensive - usually at least six months - of non-surgical treatment (such as physical therapy, medications, and other treatments)
  • Have ongoing low back pain that limits their ability to function in their daily activities at work and/or at home
  • Have received a diagnosis that a specific disc space is the pain generator and other possible causes of the patient's low back pain have been considered and ruled out
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It is important to stress that the decision to undergo a fusion procedure for low back pain is entirely the patient's decision and he or she needs to carefully weigh the risks and possible complications along with the potential benefits of surgery, as well as consider the full range of alternatives to a spine fusion surgery.

It is often a good idea for patients to get a second (or third) opinion from other surgeons and/or other types of spine specialists prior to deciding whether or not to have spinal fusion.

The decision to have a spine fusion procedure to treat low back pain from degenerative disc disease is a very personal one. Degenerative disc disease is for the most part a non-crippling, non-progressive type of back condition, although in a minority of cases it can cause severe back pain and can significantly impact on an individual's ability to function.

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