Understanding spinal fusion surgery

Spinal fusion surgery complications and treatment options

Ross Hauser, MD
In this article, Ross Hauser MD provides information for people researching possible complications from Spinal fusion surgery BEFORE they consent to surgery. If you are suffering from Failed Back Surgery Syndrome.

Research suggests that if you knew what spinal fusion surgery was and the realistic post-surgery success and complication possibilities, you would likely not have it

In September 2017, doctors at the Neuroscience Institute, Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, published a paper in the medical journal Spine.(1Joined by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Washington, they suggested that patients who have a case review by a team of spinal pain specialists, including physiatrists, anesthesiologists, pain specialists, neurosurgeons, orthopaedic spine surgeons, physical therapists, and nursing staff, and are counseled in the findings of that review, will likely decline to have the surgery.

This is a very interesting study for the patient. So let’s break it down a little bit.

The paper sought to establish a comparison between getting guidance from a multi-discipline and diverse group of health care professionals as opposed to only getting guidance from a surgeon in whether or not they should proceed with spinal fusion. What is highlighted is the fact that the patients in this study had ALREADY suffered from a complex spinal history of PRIOR spinal surgery.

In their review and counseling, patients’ were involved in discussions about deciding on surgery, the type of surgery, and to see if they were good candidates for that particular surgery.

Highlights from the study:

Isolated surgical decision making (relying solely on one opinion and that of a surgeon) may result in suboptimal treatment recommendations.

The research concludes:

Spinal fusion surgery complications and treatment options before the surgery

Research is addressing the problem that patients DO NOT understand what is causing their back pain and rely too much on the surgical interpretation of MRI to give the go-ahead to fusion surgery.

If patients have information, they are more likely NOT to have a spinal fusion surgery.

As we discussed in the research above, if patients have information, they are more likely NOT to have a spinal fusion surgery. But what if they were given a piece of information that, by itself, suggested a fusion may be necessary? What if that information was not collaborated? Then you have symptom free patients heading for surgery.

Spondylolisthesis (Slipped disc), Spondylolysis ( stress fractures from wear and tear), Spondylisis (arthritis wear and tear of the discs). These are sometimes confusing terms that act as a catch all phrase or umbrella term to describe neurological or degenerative or inflammatory disorders caused by spinal defects which can occur in the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar regions.

The terms can also be linked to degrees of severity such as mild or moderate or advanced spondylisis or severe spondylisis that can cause local or diffuse pain. Sometimes everything is just thrown into one term spondylotic. It is sometimes difficult for the to understand all these definitions.

One problem is when the problem is difficult to understand – patients opt for surgery.

In a recent study from doctors at Wayne State University School of Medicine appearing in the Journal of neurosurgery, patients referred to a neurosurgery clinic for degenerative spinal disorders were surveyed to determine their understanding of lumbar spondylosis diagnosis and treatment.(2)

The survey consisted of questions designed to assess patient understanding of the role of radiological imaging (MRI for low back pain) in the diagnosis and treatment of low-back and leg pain, and patient perception of the indications for surgical compared with conservative management.

These results show that a surprisingly high percentage of patients have misconceptions regarding the diagnosis and treatment of lumbar spondylosis, and that these misconceptions persist in patients with a history of spinal surgery. 

These misconceptions have the potential to alter patient expectations and decrease satisfaction, which could negatively impact patient outcomes and subjective valuations of physician performance. While these results are preliminary, they highlight a need for improved communication and patient education during surgical consultation for degenerative lumbar spondylosis.

Are you a good candidate for spinal fusion?

The two studies cited above suggests that you are a good candidate if you sought many medical options about your spinal fusion, especially if you already have complicated back issues from previous spinal surgery. They also suggest that you are a good candidate if you do not believe everything the MRI is showing you. However, are there more considerations to take into account if you are exploring spinal fusion surgery?

As recent research published by the Japan Neurosurgical Society points out “despite the fact that an absolute indication for this surgery is still unclear, decisions about performing lumbar fusion for degenerative Spondylolisthesis should be undertaken by considering not only the patient’s condition but also the social circumstances, medical insurance system, economic effects, and the surgeon’s preference and experience. “(3)

In other words, other things to consider:

Spinal Fusion Surgery – the Failure of Treatment

A news story in the New York Times dated August 3, 2016 had this to say about the effectiveness of spinal fusion surgery:

“(Spinal fusion is an) operation that welds together adjacent vertebrae to relieve back pain from worn-out discs. Unlike most operations, it actually was tested in four clinical trials. The conclusion: Surgery was no better than alternative nonsurgical treatments, like supervised exercise and therapy to help patients deal with their fear of back pain. In both groups, the pain usually diminished or went away.

The studies were completed by the early 2000s and should have been enough to greatly limit or stop the surgery, says Dr. Richard Deyo, professor of evidence-based medicine at the Oregon Health and Sciences University. But that did not happen, according to a recent report. Instead, spinal fusion rates increased — the clinical trials had little effect.”

It is unclear if a decade of clinical trials saying spinal fusion is no better than conservative treatments and one New York Times article will change anything, spinal fusion surgery will still be done. Why? Because the MRI will always show clear evidence of the need for medical intervention.

Spinal fusion does work for some people, but why would researchers say that the success of spinal fusion surgery is “a matter of chance.”

Leading neurologists and spinal surgeons in Norway and Sweden published their research in the Scandinavian journal of pain (published in the United States) in July 2017. The paper entitled: Symptoms and signs possibly indicating segmental, discogenic pain. A fusion study with 18 years of follow-up, followed patients who had spinal fusion over an 18 year period.

Let’s see what they had to say:

What we have in the introduction of this paper is the spinal surgeons found that:

The purpose of this paper was to help identify which patients spinal fusion may help. In it’s conclusion the researchers found patients with midline back pain and acute pain on sudden movement may benefit most. Results were not conclusive.

A remarkable finding from that research on lumbar fusion success or non-success

I want to point out that this research was lead by renowned spinal surgery researchers Bo Nystrom of the Clinic of Spinal Surgery in Sweden. Among his many studies, Nystrom lead a team of researchers that writing in The open orthopaedics journal suggested that if MRI showed what was really causing back pain, lumbar fusion would have worked. Here is a remarkable finding from that research on lumbar fusion success or non-success.

Your life on painkillers after surgery. Why these painkillers cause the need for more surgery

The three studies cited above suggest to patients the many complexities of spinal fusion surgery. All of them discuss the quality of life in patients for whom there were complications causing post-surgical pain. Now here is a fourth study that brings in a more detailed analysis of the need for painkillers after the spinal fusion.

In research from the medical journal Spine, doctors looked at Worker’s Compensation patients who were given Lumbar Fusion Surgery for Degenerative Disc Disease. What they wanted to measure was how much painkiller medication they were on, if any, and what was the effect.

One thousand and two patients participated who had a lumbar fusion from 1993-2013.

Here are the summary points for people who had surgery and their primary treatment after three years became chronic opioid therapy:

People on chronic opioid therapy were more likely to

Within 3 years after fusion, the chronic opioid therapy group was supplied with an average of 1083.4 days of opioids and 49.0 opioid prescriptions, 86.2% of which were Schedule II.(6)

Examples of Schedule II narcotics include: hydromorphone (Dilaudid®), methadone (Dolophine®), meperidine (Demerol®), oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®), and fentanyl (Sublimaze®, Duragesic®). Other Schedule II narcotics include: morphine, opium, codeine, and hydrocodone.

Please refer to our articles How narcotic pain medications can increase chronic pain, Why chronic non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDs) usage can make pain worse.

Why you may need more surgery after the spinal fusion – You may not fuse, You may fuse too much

In the research above, studies centered on patients who already had spinal surgery that resulted in a “complex history of prior spinal surgery.” The causes of failure are many and complex. What the studies above point out is the need to try not to go back to another surgery.

A study in the Global spine journal, examined Pseudarthrosis (the non-union or non-healing of bones) following spinal fusion.

To a doctor like myself, who sees many failed back surgery patients, it is not surprising that the researchers said the non-union or non-healing of bones remains a substantial problem. Current data shows that patients who develop a pseudarthrosis have suboptimal outcomes. (Some would call suboptimal, failure, or catastrophic failure of the spinal fusion).

The somber news for patients with a non-healing spinal fusion is that these researchers concluded after an evaluation of the surgical approaches to revision surgery to fix this problem: “All surgical approaches examined for the treatment of lumbar pseudarthrosis resulted in only poor to modest improvement in (disability improvement scoring).”(7)

Special notice for patients over 80

In the January 2018 edition of the medical journal Acta neurochirurgica, doctors put out a special warning for patients over the age of 80 who were being recommended to spinal fusion surgery. Here is what the conclusion of this research reported:

 Higher risk of hip replacement complications in patients who had a previous spinal fusion

Doctors at New York University publishing in the Spine Journal write that lumbar fusion reduces the variation in pelvic tilt between standing and sitting. What does this mean? It means while a flexible lumbo-pelvic unit increases the stability of total hip arthroplasty in the seated position, preventing impingement of the prosthesis. A previous lumbar fusion may eliminate this flexible and protective pelvic movement, according to the NYU researchers and puts these patients at increased risk for hip prosthesis dislocation.(9)

National University of Singapore researchers have found the same phenomena. Publishing in the Journal of Arthroplasty, their study strongly demonstrates that patients with prior spinal fusion had worse outcomes after hip replacement than patients without prior spinal fusion. This has clinical significance in counseling patients with previous spinal fusion considering a total hip replacement.(10)

Also writing in the Journal of Arthroplasty, doctors at the University of California, San Francisco found more troubling problems:

What are the treatment options for back pain other than fusion?

Our website is filled with articles just like this one that presents research and options. You can continue researching spinal fusion alternative with us by visiting these pages that discuss Comprehensive Prolotherapy and by watching the video below.

If you want to discuss your specific case with our staff please contact us

If you have questions about Spinal fusion surgery complications, Get help and information from our Caring Medical staff

1 Yanamadala V, Kim Y, Buchlak QD, Wright AK, Babington J, Friedman A, Mecklenburg RS, Farrokhi F, Leveque JC, Sethi RK. Multidisciplinary Evaluation Leads to the Decreased Utilization of Lumbar Spine Fusion: An Observational Cohort Pilot Study. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2017 Jan 6. [Google Scholar]
2. Franz EW, Bentley JN, Yee PP, Chang KW, Kendall-Thomas J, Park P, Yang LJ. Patient misconceptions concerning lumbar spondylosis diagnosis and treatment. Journal of Neurosurgery: Spine. 2015 May;22(5):496-502. [Google Scholar]
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8 Rajpal S, Nelson EL, Villavicencio AT, Telang J, Kantha R, Beasley K, Burneikiene S. Medical complications and mortality in octogenarians undergoing elective spinal fusion surgeries. Acta neurochirurgica. 2018 Jan 1;160(1):171-9. [Google Scholar]
9 Buckland AJ, Puvanesarajah V2, Vigdorchik J. Dislocation of a primary total hip arthroplasty is more common in patients with a lumbar spinal fusion. Bone Joint J. 2017 May;99-B(5):585-591. [Google Scholar]
10 Loh JLM, Jiang L, Chong HC, Yeo SJ, Lo NN. Effect of Spinal Fusion Surgery on Total Hip Arthroplasty Outcomes: A Matched Comparison Study. J Arthroplasty. 2017 Mar 22. [Google Scholar]
11 Barry JJ, Sing DC, Vail TP, Hansen EN. Early Outcomes of Primary Total Hip Arthroplasty After Prior Lumbar Spinal Fusion. J Arthroplasty. 2017 Feb;32(2):470-474. [Google Scholar]


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