Nearly everyone experiences back pain at some point in their lives. In fact, it’s one of the top reasons people seek medical help. And while there are many causes of back pain, there are also different kinds of back pain, because the back isn’t a single organ, but rather a large area of your body made up of muscles, bones, and nerves. But regardless of where in the back you’re experiencing pain and what caused it, when pain becomes chronic—meaning it never seems to go away and it continues to affect your everyday activities after weeks or even years—you may need treatment that could include a lumbar fusion.
One of the most common procedures to relieve chronic lower back pain is lumbar fusion, also known as spinal fusion, a surgery that literally fuses, or joins, two vertebrae, which are the small bones that surround and protect the spinal cord, a series of nerves that runs down the middle of your back from the brain.
Causes and Types of Lower Back Pain
The lumbar (lower back) area consists of five of the larger vertebrae of your spine, and receives the most stress when you lift and carry heavy objects. Although overexertion from lifting and carrying is one of the more common sources of lower back pain, there are several other causes, including:
- Congenital conditions (meaning you’re born with them), including abnormalities of the spine (scoliosis) and spina bifida, where areas of the spinal cord haven’t fully developed.
- Injuries to or affecting the area, including sprains, strains, or spasms
- Degenerative conditions (meaning they start out undetected but get worse over time) such as inflammatory disease (arthritis, spondylosis) or intervertebral disc degeneration (when the rubbery discs between vertebrae wear down)
- Problems with the spinal cord or other nerves, including herniated discs, sciatica, or spinal stenosis
- Other conditions that don’t start in the back but can cause pain in the area, including tumors and kidney stones, or pain syndromes like fibromyalgia
Risk Factors for Lower Back Pain
Although anyone can get lower back pain—especially from lifting a heavy item—there are factors that make you more likely to suffer from the condition. These include:
- How old you are, because the risk of several conditions—as well as the effects of regular wear and tear—increase as you age
- How in shape you are, because back pain is more likely to strike those who are not physically active
- Your weight, especially if you’ve gained weight quickly
- Everyday activities, if your job requires a lot of stretching and lifting—or if you sit at a desk for most of the day and don’t exercise
- Your family’s medical history, because some of the congenital conditions described above can be inherited
- Mental or psychological factors such as stress and depression
Before Lumbar Fusion Surgery Is Considered
Because it’s a procedure requiring surgery and recovery, lumbar fusion is usually not recommended as the first treatment for lower back pain. Often, you’ll be asked to try options including:
- Medications such as over-the-counter analgesics (acetaminophen and ibuprofen) or prescription drugs such as gabapentin or steroids
- Hot or cold packs applied to the affected area
- Resuming normal activities and exercises to strengthen the muscles; bed rest is actually not recommended
- Referrals to specialists for acupuncture, physical therapy, or chiropractic treatment
- Spinal injections to relax tightened muscles, relieve inflammation, or destroy the nerve fibers carrying pain signals to the brain
If these initial treatments do not relieve your lower back pain, then surgery may be recommended.
The Lumbar Fusion Surgery Procedure for Back Pain
Because motion is what creates lower back pain, lumbar fusion surgery is designed to eliminate motion between two vertebrae by connecting them in a way that resembles welding two parts together. Unlike actual welding, however, there are additional “parts” that are involved in the process. Bone material, called a bone graft, will be placed into the space between the vertebrae that are being fused.
Initially, this bone material would be harvested from the patient during the operation (usually from the pelvis), but there are now other options for artificial bone grafts that reduce the need for the extra surgical steps on the patient. To help stabilize the spine and hold the vertebrae together, the surgeon may also add metal rods, screws, or rods.
To access the vertebrae to be fused, the surgeon will choose a technique, called an approach:
- An anterior approach means the surgeon will go through the front of your body with an incision in your abdomen.
- A posterior approach means the surgeon will access the spine through the back.
- Finally, a lateral approach means the surgeon will access the area through the side of your body.
Depending on your condition, your procedure may be open (traditional) or minimally invasive, which requires fewer cuts and allows for quicker recovery times. Lumbar fusion surgery may be following a related procedure, such as lumbar laminectomy (removing a portion of bone covering the roof of the spinal canal) or discectomy (removing a portion of a herniated disc).
Lumbar Fusion Surgery Recovery
You can usually go home two to four days after lumbar fusion surgery; the same day if the procedure was minimally invasive. During the early stages following the surgery, you should avoid bending, twisting, lifting, and driving. You may be required to wear a brace temporarily to make sure your spine is stable. Your surgeon and the clinical staff will speak to you about the specifics regarding your recovery, including medications to reduce pain, potential complications, and rehabilitation options.
Contact Our Skilled Athens-Clarke Brain and Spinal Surgeon Today
Your lower back pain doesn’t have to be permanent—lumbar fusion surgery might be the answer. Dr. Woodall has the skill and experience to perform this procedure so you get the relief you’re looking for, without leaving the Athens area. Contact our office today.