January 7, 2022

What’s a lumbar fusion, and can it help me live a normal life?

Neck, Back and Spine

Most people with chronic lower back pain feel better with conservative treatment. But for some patients with more spine complex conditions, procedures like lumbar fusion are the best solution for providing relief.

Read on to learn who benefits from lumbar fusion surgery, and find out what to expect during recovery—and life—after you’ve healed.

What is lumbar fusion surgery?

The lumbar spine is located in the lower back, below the cervical and thoracic sections of the spine. It consists of five vertebrae known as L1–L5.

Lumbar fusion surgery permanently connects two or more vertebrae in the spine, eliminating motion between them, and therefore, reducing pain.

What to expect during the diagnosis and treatment process when you see a doctor for back pain.

Who typically needs it?

Most people can get back pain relief without spine surgery, and most spine doctors will try alternative treatments before they recommend lumbar fusion or any other kind of back surgery.

But when it is needed, lumbar fusion surgery is an effective treatment for some more severe spine pain cases. Your spine doctor will help you make an informed decision about what’s right for you.

When a doctor recommends lumbar fusion surgery, it typically depends on the level of pain you’re experiencing, how long you’ve been in pain, your level of disability, and what treatments you’ve already tried.

Some back pain conditions that often see improvement after lumbar fusion surgery include:

Spine surgeon or a physiatrist: Who should you see?

What are the benefits?

One of the main goals of surgery on any part of the skeletal system is to stop the pain caused by degenerative (worn-out) joints. One of the most reliable ways to treat that degeneration is to fuse the joints.

In just the past few years, there have been dramatic improvements in how lumbar fusion surgeries are performed, including advancements in minimally invasive spine surgery, resulting in better patient outcomes.

When compared to traditional surgeries, minimally-invasive lumbar fusion benefits can include:

  • Faster surgery
  • Less post-operative pain
  • Less blood loss
  • Decreased risk of infection or complications
  • Same or better success rate for the fusion
  • Shorter recovery time

Life after lumbar fusion surgery

The actual fusion process can take anywhere from three to 18 months, and it takes about three months for fusions to mature and become solid. During that time (or as long as your surgeon recommends), you should avoid bending or twisting your spine, so you don’t damage your lumbar fusion.

Your doctor will also likely recommend physical therapy to help heal your back. Your physical therapist will recommend an appropriate exercise program to help you strengthen and stretch your muscles for maximum flexibility.

Sticking to your program will be vital to a successful recovery.

Melanie’s story

At OrthoIndy, we’ve helped countless people get a new lease on life after lumbar fusion surgery. Patients like Melanie Miller, who lived with low back pain for years found relief after surgery.

In 2019, Melanie was diagnosed with spondylolysis of her L5 vertebrae, which is part of the lumbar spine. Melanie underwent a two-part surgery to correct her condition.

The first part of her lumbar fusion surgery was an anterior interbody fusion. Our surgeon did the second part through a couple of small incisions in her back. A computer navigation system helped her surgeon, Dr. Kevin O’Neill, insert screws and rods to hold the bones together.

“I was home in two days,” Melanie said. “I was back on my feet the same day as surgery, and they did it through my stomach and back! I never felt intimidated or like I didn’t know what was going on through the whole process.”

According to Dr. O’Neill, Melanie’s bones healed together successfully, and she’s doing better than ever, enjoying life without low back pain. “I couldn’t be happier for her!” he said.

Schedule an appointment

Your well-being is important to us. Call us at 317.802.2883 to schedule an appointment with a back doctor or make an appointment request online.

If you’ve seen another spine specialist who recommends lumbar fusion surgery, get a second opinion from a member of OrthoIndy’s expert spine team to confirm that’s the best treatment plan for you.

For rehabilitation and physical therapy, no referral is required to see one of our physical therapists.

Contributed By Kevin O'Neill, MD

Dr. Kevin O’Neill is a spine surgeon who evaluates and treats patients with a wide variety of neck and spine conditions and performs a variety of spine procedures– such as spinal fusions. He eliminates back surgery risks by using techniques such as minimally invasive and motion-preserving orthopedic surgery for the most complex spine reconstructions.

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