What Is Spinal Fusion Surgery?

Doctors do spinal fusion surgery to help kids and teens with scoliosis or other spine problems.

It's called "fusion" because the surgery lets two or more bones in the spine (called vertebrae) fuse (grow together) into one solid bone. This helps the spine grow in a straighter position and sometimes eases back pain.

Why Is Spinal Fusion Surgery Done?

Many kids with scoliosis don't need medical treatment. Others wear a brace to keep the spine from developing more of a curve.

But some kids have scoliosis that's too severe to be helped by a brace. Or they might be too old for bracing. Others may have a type of scoliosis or other spine condition where bracing doesn't help. These kids may need a spinal fusion to straighten the curve as much as possible and stop it from getting worse.

What Happens During Spinal Fusion Surgery?

Kids and teens having a spinal fusion will get general anesthesia. This lets them sleep through surgery. The operation takes several hours.Illustration: spinal fusion

  • After making an incision (cut) in the back, the surgeon makes cuts in the bone to put it in a straighter position.
  • Then, the surgeon puts in rods and screws to hold the bone in that straighter position. The metal parts are placed deep under the spine muscles. In most cases they can't be felt and don't hurt.
  • Finally, the surgeon packs in bone graft (small pieces of bone) where the rods and screws are. This will eventually fuse the spine bones together.

What Happens After Spinal Fusion Surgery?

After a fusion, most kids stay in the hospital for a couple of days. That gives them time to recover from surgery and increase their movement. By the time they go home, they'll be able to walk around and do many day-to-day things (shower, dress themselves, and climb stairs).

Kids whose scoliosis is very severe or who have other medical conditions might need a longer hospital stay. Their care team will watch for and treat any complications (such as pneumonia, constipation, or trouble eating).

Most kids take prescription medicines regularly for less than 2 weeks to help them deal with pain and muscle spasms. Over time, they can take less pain medicine. Sometimes, kids can switch to acetaminophen or ibuprofen if the health care provider says it's OK.

How Can I Help My Child?

To help your child heal at home:

  • Encourage your child to walk or move around a little bit more each day. Start with light activity around the house, like going to get the mail or letting the dog out. Soon your child will be able to get out of the house to do normal activities like walking around the mall.
  • Make sure your child doesn't drive or lift more than a few pounds until the health care provider says it's OK.

Your health care provider also will let you know when your child can go back to school. Most kids go back about 3–4 weeks after the surgery. But they can't go to gym class or play sports for a while (usually 2–6 months). That's because the bones are still fusing. Let the school staff know your child will need help at first. The school can give your child extra time to get through the hallways or a second set of schoolbooks to keep at home.

Sometimes kids need physical therapy to complete their recovery. This usually starts about 4–6 weeks after surgery. It can continue for several months.

Looking Ahead

After about 6 months to a year, the bones should be fully fused. The metal rods are no longer needed but they stay in the patient's back because they aren't doing any harm. Taking them out would involve another operation.

After a full recovery, kids can play sports and do the activities that they enjoyed doing before surgery.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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