Talking With Your Doctor About Spinal Fusion

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Lower back MRI scan with gloved physician's hand & pencil
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Spinal fusion surgery can relieve back pain and restore function to limbs affected by pinched nerves near the spinal column. But the surgery also carries risks you should discuss honestly with your doctor before you proceed. To achieve the best results, learn what questions to ask about spinal fusion surgery – and what to expect in recovery.

Prepare for Your Conversation

You can make the most of your time with the spinal fusion doctor by preparing in advance for your appointment. This will allow you to ask informed questions and bring up any personal concerns regarding the procedure.

Prepare for your appointment by:

  • Researching the various types of spinal fusion surgery available
  • Researching the types of anesthesia your doctor may use
  • Investigating alternatives to spinal fusion surgery so you can get your doctor’s opinion about them
  • Writing down what your “ideal outcome” looks like
  • Writing down a list of questions and concerns you have
  • Taking a family member or friend with you to the appointment to take notes

These steps will help you have a detailed discussion with your doctor that answers all your questions and helps you do everything you can on your end to assure the best possible outcome after surgery.

Explore Your Spinal Fusion Options

Spinal fusion surgery can be accomplished in several different ways and often includes other spinal procedures performed at the same time. When you talk to your doctor, ask questions like:

  • Which type of surgery is best for my goals?
  • Why do you recommend this approach to spinal fusion?
  • What type of scar will this procedure leave? Will it be visible?
  • What other procedures do you recommend doing at the same time as the fusion surgery?
  • How confident are you that I will achieve the “ideal outcome” I outlined?
  • How often do you perform this type of spinal fusion surgery?
  • What alternatives to spinal fusion might I explore before I decide to move forward with an operation?
  • How will my [pain, numbness, limb weakness, or other symptoms] progress if I opt to delay having surgery?

These questions can help you understand the specific spinal fusion procedure your doctor recommends and how it might reduce or eliminate your symptoms.

Ask About Spinal Fusion Risks

All surgeries confer certain risks. With spinal fusion surgery, the risks can vary greatly depending on the specific surgical approach used and the type of anesthesia required.

When it comes to anesthesia risks, ask your doctor what type of anesthesia he or she recommends for your procedure. Ask if you can make any lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of complications from general anesthesia.

Find out what measures the surgeon and surgical team take to mitigate the surgical risks involved, such as infection.

Finally, ask what steps you can take during the home recovery period to safeguard the spinal fusion to help it heal successfully. Your spinal fusion doctor also should be able to tell you what the most successful patients do to obtain the best surgical result.

Find Out What to Expect

Understanding what to expect during and after spinal fusion surgery can help you ease anxiety about the process and assure a smooth experience.

Ask your doctor:

  • Where will the surgery be performed?
  • What testing do I need prior to surgery? Who will arrange the testing?
  • How long will the procedure take?
  • How long can I expect to be hospitalized afterwards?
  • What medications or supplements should I stop or continue taking prior to surgery? When can I resume taking medications or supplements after surgery?
  • How much time should I take off from work for recovery?

Prepare for Recovery

Recovery after spinal fusion surgery can take weeks to months, depending on how extensive the procedure was. Most spinal fusion patients must wear a stabilizing brace after surgery and reduce their activity level significantly to avoid disturbing the fusion while it heals.

As you talk with your spinal fusion doctor, ask plenty of questions about what to expect in recovery. This can help you set realistic expectations for pain management, activity restrictions, and other issues that will affect your day-to-day life after surgery.

Ask your doctor:

  • When will my first follow-up appointment be? Do I need to call and make that appointment myself?
  • How will you manage my pain after surgery?
  • How do I care for my incision?
  • What concerning symptoms should I watch for? What is the best way to reach you?
  • What types of limitations should I expect after I go home? How long will these limitations last?
  • When do I need to wear my brace? Can I remove it for showering or sleeping?
  • Will I be allowed to climb stairs, or should I prepare a place on the main floor of my home for sleeping?
  • What medical supplies, equipment, or comfort items might I need during recovery?
  • Is there anything I can do to minimize scarring? If so, when should I begin doing that?
  • What kind of help might I need around the house during the recovery period?

Communicating well with your doctor and understanding everything you need to do in recovery can help you get the results you want from spinal fusion surgery. Don’t hesitate to bring up any personal fears or concerns with your doctor—or to report post-operative symptoms. Everyone on the healthcare team wants your surgery to be a success so you can go back to living the active, pain-free life you had before the spinal problems occurred.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jun 10
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  4. Spinal Fusion. North American Spine Society. https://www.spine.org/KnowYourBack/Treatments/Surgical-Options/Spinal-Fusion
  5. Spinal Fusion. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/treatment/spinal-fusion/