Surgical Successes: Lumbar Spinal Fusion

This blog is part of the series entitled Surgical Successes. This series will highlight various surgical procedures that are currently being performed at Eskenazi Health. Recently, Dr. Camden Burns, an orthopedic surgeon, sat down to discuss the lumbar spinal fusion surgery offered at Eskenazi Health. 

When looking at the spine, it is divided into five different regions: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacrum, and coccyx. The cervical, thoracic and lumbar are regions most closely associated with the spine. In general terms, the cervical region is the upper region, the thoracic is the middle and the lumbar is the lower region. While many share similar causes for a person to need a spinal fusion, the procedure is different for each region.

According to Dr. Burns, a lumbar spinal fusion is normally part of a larger procedure and is done to help relieve pain should previous treatment plans prove ineffective. That pain can be caused by traumatic injury to the lumbar region or a degenerative change in the bone structure, such as arthritis. Both can be reasons for a spinal fusion. Additionally a spinal fusion may be necessary to help stabilize the spine, where the instability stems from a separate spinal injury. These can cause stenosis, or the bunching of the nerves in the spine. This is what causes the lower back and lower leg pain and this is what the spinal fusion looks to alleviate.  

Should spinal fusion be determined to be the best course of action for the patient in order to relieve pain and increase the stability of the spine, the first step is for the surgeon to expose the outer edge of the two lumbar vertebrae which are to be fused together. Then the surgeon packs the exposed surface with bone graft to generate healthy bone growth. Meanwhile screws and rods hold the vertebrae together in order to give stability while the bones are fusing together. While it is possible to perform this surgery without using instrumentation (screws and rods), Dr. Burns notes how most surgeons opt to use the instrumentation as it creates a more stable environment for bone growth and successful vertebra fusions. 

Like any surgery, there are risks that can be associated with these surgeries such as bleeding, infection, nerve damage and/or damage to internal organs and the internal body structure. Dr. Burns says the risks for this surgery are relatively low.

Recovery from a lumbar spinal fusion is similar to any other recovery from a broken bone. Age and overall health of the patient factor into the recovery time. According to Dr. Burns, it takes about 10-12 weeks for a young healthy body to recover from a spinal fusion surgery. Older and less healthy bodies may take longer but each patient is different. During that time, the patient will initially focus on core stabilization as part of the recovery therapy. Once the fusion is healed, the patient will begin to focus on range of motion and overall strength. 

Should a patient undergo a lumbar spinal fusion, most often patients will not experience a decreased range of motion. However, Dr. Burns notes how, if a patient has several vertebrae be fused together, the patient will notice a change in their range of motion. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing pain in the spine or lower leg, it is important to schedule a time to see a doctor as soon as possible. To request an appointment, please visit or call 317.880.0000.

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