Spinal fusion occurs when a damaged or broken disc is removed from between two vertebrae and the bones are then grafted together. The goal of spinal fusion is to prevent the vertebrae from knocking together, causing pain to the patient. Demand for spinal fusion is expected to grow in the coming years, with 102 procedures needed per 100,000 residents by 2060 – an 83% increase – as more people look to treat their back pain. 

Despite the value of spinal fusion, there are still significant complications and concerns with this operation. This is driving more spinal neurosurgeons to opt for artificial disc replacement instead. Learn more about the process of fusion and the potential long-term problems that come with it. 


What is the purpose of a spinal fusion?

Adults have 24 vertebrae in their spines, each of which is protected by small cushions called spinal discs. These discs work as shock absorbers when you move throughout the day. Occasionally, these discs wear out, break, or fall out of place and into the nerve canal. Not only is this painful for the patient, but it leaves the vertebrae vulnerable. Spinal fusion surgery removes the problem discs and holds the vertebrae in place so they can no longer harm each other.   

There are multiple reasons why doctors recommend spinal fusion. This is often used for patients with degenerative disc disease who have one or more worn-out discs. It is also a treatment for spinal instability. In the short run, spinal fusion can reduce pain levels and help patients resume their favorite activities. It has a success rate ranging from 70% to 95% depending on the procedure. For decades, this has been the go-to option for treating spinal disc issues. 


What Are The Signs of a Failed Spinal Fusion?

While spinal fusion has a high overall success rate, complications aren’t unheard of. Patients who have a failed spinal fusion might notice that their pain levels return – or never go away. They can also develop additional symptoms like numbness in the back or limbs, weakness in the body, and limited mobility. 

A significant warning sign that something is wrong is changes in the type of pain post-surgery. If you experienced chronic aching before fusion and start to notice sudden sharp pangs after the operation, there could be something wrong. 


Long-Term Physical Complications and Problems with Spinal Fusion

Patients who go through spinal fusion may notice complications as they start to heal. If this is the case with your operation, talk to your doctor about any symptoms you experience. They should be able to treat your back pain and get to the root cause of why it occurs. 

Adjacent Segment Disease (ASD)

ASD is when disc degeneration occurs in the segments above or below the spinal fusion. This could be because those discs were pushed out of place or now have increased pressure on them. Patients will then need to seek treatment for the disc issues caused by the fusion operation.    

Chronic Pain

Spinal fusion is often recommended as a way to treat chronic back pain. Talk to your doctor if your pain levels fail to improve or get worse. Also, mention any new types of pain that develop. 

Reduced Mobility

As you heal, you might notice that you aren’t as flexible as before the operation. While this is expected in some fusion procedures, you should not significantly lose your ability to bend, twist, and move like you once could. 

Potential for Repeated Surgeries

If you experience a failed spinal fusion or serious ASD as a result of the procedure, your doctor might recommend additional surgery. This is often recommended if your pain isn’t responsive to non-invasive treatment options. 


Long-Term Psychological Problems with Spinal Fusion and Quality of Life Impact

Spinal fusion operations come with several potential physical side effects but also with mental and emotional concerns. Even though this surgery has high success and recovery rates, you might have to make changes to your life that affect your mental health. Here are some psychological impacts of choosing spinal fusion. 

Mental Health Impacted

Patients who experience complications with spinal fusion surgery often feel depressed or anxious after the event. They often had high hopes that the procedure would solve their problems and now wonder how they can find a solution. Living with chronic pain and losing mobility can also cause depression as patients adjust to their new normal. 

Impact on Daily Activities

If moving is uncomfortable or difficult, you might have to change some of your daily activities or get help from friends and family members. It’s hard to feel dependent on others for help and many patients feel frustrated when they cannot move like they once could. 

Impact on Lifestyle

Some patients need to change their exercise routines or hobbies after they undergo spinal fusion surgery. This can be emotionally frustrating if you have to give up some activities that you love. 

Long-Term Medical Dependencies

Today’s doctors do their best to prevent addiction to medications and other treatments; however, dependencies still occur. Not only can this dependency affect you physically as your body craves the medication or treatment but it can affect your mental health and relationships with others.  


Economic and Social Implications

Beyond your physical and mental health, additional issues can arise when you experience a failed spinal fusion surgery. These problems can reach into other aspects of your life and affect your friends and family.  

Financial Burden

After surgery, some patients worry about becoming financial burdens to their loved ones. They need to cover their medical bills from the operation – or multiple operations – and aren’t able to work while they are healing. Entire families can struggle because of this lost income.  

Impact on Career 

Spinal fusion is often used as a way to heal patients so they can work; however, if you are in pain from your operation, you might not be able to return to your job. A failed operation could cause you to change careers or prevent you from working at all. This has emotional and financial effects on many patients. 

Social Challenges and Support Needs

Your life may change if your spinal fusion procedure doesn’t go as planned. It might be hard for you to keep up with your friends or share your favorite activities with them. Other relationships may change if your partner or children need to step into caretaker roles. These adjustments can be difficult for everyone involved. 


Best Alternatives and Preventative Measures

If you are concerned about spinal fusion surgery, there are alternative options to consider. The optimal first step is to meet with a leading spinal surgeon, like Dr. Todd Lanman, who can take a comprehensive look at your condition and symptoms and consider non-surgical treatments.  Some forms of patient care, like medication and physical therapy, are effective at supporting back health and lowering pain levels. You might not need to go through with the spinal fusion operation. 

Additionally, look into artificial disc replacement instead. This operation is designed to protect your mobility, treat pain, and reduce the risk of ASD during the healing process. 

The most important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t live with back pain. Early intervention can help you catch small problems before they become serious. and lifestyle modifications could prevent you from needing surgery. It is better to seek medical advice when your back pain is mild so it doesn’t become severe. 

What should I do if I had a botched spinal fusion in the past?

If you already had a spinal fusion operation and it left you in more pain than before, seek medical help from a different surgeon. A more experienced and careful doctor should identify the source of your pain and develop a treatment plan to manage or address the issue. 

Why is ADR a better option to relieve pain?

ADR is increasingly preferred by spinal neurosurgeons because it is less invasive and preserves the mobility of patients. The discs are designed to move like the natural ones in your body. With this option, you are more likely to live pain-free and enjoy your favorite activities once you heal from the operation. ADR is often preferred for addressing multi-level issues where several discs are affected.   


Contact Dr. Todd Lanman for a Consultation Today

While spinal fusion is a safe procedure, patients can experience complications for several years after their operations. Long-term problems from spinal fusion can be physical, mental, emotional, and even social. 

If you had spinal fusion surgery in the past but the pain lingers, request a consultation with Dr. Todd H. Lanman, leading spinal neurosurgeon and founder of the Advanced Disc Replacement Spinal Restoration Center, to discuss your options. He is at the forefront of artificial disc replacement and frequently recommends it over spinal fusion. Dr. Lanman can go over your case and provide multiple options for treatment – both surgical and non-surgical. This can empower you to make informed decisions about your health and what is best for your body. 

Meet with Dr. Lanman and receive the personalized care you deserve.



What can I expect six months after spinal fusion?

Most patients have healed from their spinal fusion surgeries within six months of the operation. During this time, you can resume all activities – even vigorous ones like construction work, weight lifting, and rock climbing. If you are still in pain six months after the procedure, or new types of pain have formed, talk to your doctor. They can get to the root of the problem.  

Why does my back still hurt years after spinal fusion?

Spinal fusion has a high success rate but complications can occur. There might be issues with your bone graft or you could experience Adjacent Segment Disease (ASD) which impacts the surrounding spinal discs. Talk to your doctor if you are still in pain. 

Can spinal fusion cause nerve damage?

Yes. Doctors have to be careful not to damage the nerve canal when completing this operation. Nerve damage can cause a numbness or tingling sensation in your body. It can take several months to heal. Talk to your doctor if you think you are experiencing nerve damage. 

Can spinal fusion cause paralysis?

While spinal fusion can cause paralysis, it is one of the rarest complications from surgery. If you are working with a trusted spinal neurosurgeon, it is extremely unlikely that you will be paralyzed during the operation. 

What is the best preventative measure to avoid spinal fusion?

Talk to your doctor about treating back pain with non-surgical methods. They might recommend physical therapy exercises and other stretches to support back health. Practice good spinal hygiene, like sitting up straight and investing in a supportive mattress, to keep your discs in good health. 

Can every spine surgeon perform an artificial disc replacement?

Some spinal surgeons continue to choose fusion over disc replacement, likely because they don’t have the skills or training to try this alternative option. Seek out neurosurgeons who do both fusion and artificial disc replacement to get the best recommendation for your condition.


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