When you’ve been experiencing pain or discomfort in your neck, finding relief is often at the forefront of your mind. Learning why you’re experiencing these symptoms and whether a cervical fusion will help alleviate the problem will bring you that much closer to freedom from your neck problems.
What Is Cervical Fusion?
Your neck is made up of seven stacking bones known as vertebrae. These bones are located from the base of your skull to just above your shoulder blades. Each of these bones is separated by a spinal disc. In instances when you have disc damage and it has to be removed, or one or more bones are injured or degenerating, cervical fusion may be recommended to help stabilize and strengthen that portion of your spine.
Cervical fusion is a surgical procedure that is performed by a neurosurgeon while you’re under general anesthesia. There are two approaches to this procedure: anterior and posterior. The approach your doctor chooses will be determined on a case-by-case basis. Generally, this procedure requires a small incision made in your neck. The size of the incision will depend on how many vertebrae and involved. Specialized, tiny surgical instruments, including a microscope, are used to move the muscles and surrounding tissues out of the way, allowing the vertebrae to be clearly seen.
If there is damaged bone or disc material present, that portion of tissue will be removed. A bone graft is then used to create a bridge-like structure between the affected vertebrae. In some cases metallic hardware, often referred to as “instrumentation”, is used to help provide additional support and stability for the newly-grafted bone while it heals. Once your surgeon has finished with the surgery, the incisions will be closed.
Recovery From Cervical Fusion
Immediately following your surgery, you will be moved to a recovery area. Here, you’ll awaken from anesthesia under close observation. Your pain medications will be adjusted during this time to ensure maximum comfort following your procedure. When you’re satisfactorily awake, you will be moved to a room for the remainder of your hospital stay.
The average hospital recovery time for most individuals who have undergone cervical fusion is one to three days. During this time, you’ll be transitioned to oral pain medications. You’ll be encouraged to get up and walk around. You may or may not be instructed to wear a cervical collar to help stabilize your head during the early healing process.
Be sure to have someone available to drive you home from the hospital. If possible, also have help for at least the first week after you arrive home. You will be more tired than usual – this is normal. Your body is in the midst of the healing process and will require extra rest during this period.
Follow your doctor’s instructions and take your pain medications at the prescribed intervals to maintain your pain at tolerable levels. Eating a nutrient-rich, balanced diet will help give your body the extra boost it needs to heal properly.
By the end of the first week, you’ll probably be feeling more energetic. You may be tempted to take on bigger tasks but it is important that you continue to rest and get mild exercise, such as short walks several times a day.
By the third week, you will be able to return to work if you’re in a low-impact job, such as desk work. If you’re in a more demanding occupation, you will likely have to wait longer to allow the grafts to completely heal.
Between the three to four weeks, you will need to return to your surgeon’s office for a follow-up. X-rays and an exam will be performed to track your healing progress. If physical therapy is recommended, you will likely be starting it at this point. Your surgeon may also release you to resume the full range of your normal activities, or at least the majority of them.
Most individuals who undergo cervical fusion are fully healed three to four months following their surgeries.
Risks of Cervical Fusion
Any surgery you might undergo carries certain risks. The same goes for cervical fusion. While these are reduced when minimally invasive techniques are used, there are still risks you should be aware of. These can include:
- Continued pain or discomfort
- Blood clots
- Bleeding at surgical sites
- Nerve damage
- Poor healing of the bone graft
- Reduced range of motion in the neck
Is a Cervical Fusion Right for Me?
Your surgeon can help you determine if a cervical fusion surgery is the right choice for you. Much of this will be based on your particular case. People who benefit from cervical fusion are those who have had traumatic injuries to the bones of their neck, have undergone a discectomy, suffer from a degenerative bone condition or are experiencing weakness in a portion of their neck. Through careful assessment, your surgeon can pinpoint the pros and cons and help guide you in your treatment decisions.