Every surgical procedure comes with risks. Some of the most common are infection, abnormal bleeding and scarring. If you’re deciding whether or not to receive the most common type of surgery prescribed for back pain, it’s important to know about unique spinal fusion risks. Your doctor or surgeon will likely go over rare but serious complications like nerve damage. Yet there are more common side effects that you’re not likely to hear about from the people treating you.
Adjacent Segmental Degeneration
Adjacent segmental degeneration, or ASD, is a condition that affects spinal discs surrounding the site of fusion. When segments of your spine are fused, the disc between the vertebrae is removed and the bones are fused together into a solid unit. This means that the surrounding spinal discs must take on extra shock absorbing work, since one or more discs have been removed from the spine. This can lead to bulging, herniation and nerve impingement in surrounding discs, conditions which, if severe, may require yet another surgery some years down the road.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that develops when a person witnesses or undergoes a terrifying event that threatens or realizes physical harm to himself or another. The intense fear and agitation involved in PTSD can prevent the affected person from living a normal life. Symptoms include reliving the horrifying event in flashbacks and nightmares, avoiding places, people and things that remind you of the event, intensified emotions, insomnia, jumpiness, hyper-alertness and problems with interpersonal relationships, such as difficulty expressing emotion or affection.
A small study conducted by the Oregon Health and Science University showed that about 20% of 73 participants exhibited symptoms of PTSD at some point during the first year after their spinal fusion procedures. The development of PTSD was significantly correlated with the presence of depression or anxiety prior to surgery as well as complications during the patients’ hospital stays. This means that people suffering from depression or anxiety may have an extra reason to be hesitant about having the procedure. The study can be found at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.
Surgeons generally tout a 95% success rate for spinal fusion surgeries. However, success rates aren’t based on whether or not you feel better after the procedure; they’re based on whether or not the fusion takes. If your bones are fused, the surgery was a success! This is true, to surgeons, even if you’re still in horrible pain.
Satisfaction rates, then, are more reliable than success rates for the intents and purposes of patients. Consumer Reports surveyed thousands of its customers; respondents reported a measly 56% satisfaction rate for spinal fusion. Discectomy, a less invasive, less complicated and less frequently-performed procedure, yielded a 69% satisfaction rate. See more on this at www.consumerreports.org.
When pursuing any type of back pain treatment, it’s important to be aware of all your risks. Because of its risks, cost and invasiveness, spinal fusion should only be pursued as an absolute last resort.