Frequently Asked Questions About Anterior Cervical Fusion Surgery

Anterior cervical fusion surgery is an operation that doctors may recommend for their patients, after a variety of non-surgical procedures have been tried and deemed ineffective, as a treatment for neck and shoulder pain and other issues pertaining to the cervical vertebrae. This region of the spine may suffer from degenerative conditions such as arthritis, pain due to sports injuries or car and work related accidents, leading to compression of the spinal cord and or exiting nerve roots. In the latter case, where the vertebrae in the neck are deformed, out of place, or otherwise causing significant and debilitating pain for a patient, the physician will begin considering a series of options for treatment, including anterior cervical decompression and fusion surgery.

Rothman Orthopaedic Institute performs over three thousand spine surgeries every year, effectively treating a wide variety of conditions affecting the bones in the back, as well as the nerves and the spinal cord that these bones protect. Of the thirty-three vertebrae (bones) in the spine - cervical, thoracic, lumbar, sacrum, and coccyx - the bones of the cervical vertebrae are at the top, connecting the skull to the rest of the spinal column. These vertebrae are often referred to as “doughnut shaped” bones, because of the holes in the middle; however, in the cervical region, these particular vertebral foramen (holes) are somewhat triangular in shape. Each bone in the spine is separated and cushioned by a cervical disc, which is a sort of shock absorber made of a spongy form of cartilage. The health of all of these bones and discs is crucial in order to maintain a comfortably active lifestyle.

People often ask our orthopedic physicians if the anterior cervical fusion procedure is the right treatment option for their chronic neck and shoulder pain. Again, most spinal surgeries should be considered only after other, non-surgical options have been unsuccessful or ruled out. In addition, vertebral fusion is not always the proper treatment for a spinal condition that is causing debilitating pain and loss of flexibility. Below are a few of the questions people commonly ask, along with our answers to help you better understand this procedure.

Anterior Cervical Fusion Surgery: Common Questions and Issues

Is this surgery the right option for someone with my condition?
If you have a herniated cervical disc causing severe pain in your neck and shoulder or arms, a cervical fusion surgery may be determined to be necessary after conservative treatment options have been deemed unsuccessful. Additionally, bone spurs and degenerative conditions may be the source of your symptoms – the most common symptom being arm pain. Fusing the vertebrae is one option for preventing the pain caused by movement between the bones.

What is a discectomy, and will I need this operation in addition to the spinal fusion?
If a herniated disc is causing pressure to a nerve in your spine, you may need to have the disc removed prior to the cervical fusion procedure. This operation is called a discectomy, and it is usually performed in conjunction with a spinal fusion. For a cervical discectomy and fusion surgery, the disc is removed from the front of the neck in order to remove the compressive structure causing pain.,  As the entire disc is removed with this procedure the two vertebrae above and below the disc are then fused together to prevent collapse of the spinal column at that level.

How are the vertebrae fused together?
In order for an anterior cervical fusion to occur, the surgeon typically places a bone graft obtained either from a cadaveric donor or by removing bone material from the pelvic bone and placing it between the vertebrae in place of the removed herniated disc.  Bone from the pelvis is currently only used if the patient is a present time smoker to help ensure the likelihood of a successful fusion. Over time, the bone material and vertebrae grow and fuse together, preventing any movement between the vertebrae.

How long will it take to recover from anterior cervical fusion surgery?
The length of recovery time depends on a variety of factors, especially your overall health. Most people are able to return to work after a few weeks to a few months, and you may need to wear a neck brace for a period of time. Your surgeon will advise you on the healing and physical therapy processes that are right for you.

Are there any risks from this surgery?
Every surgery comes with a risk of infection, blood clotting, and reactions to medications and anesthesia. Spinal surgery has additional risks due to the delicate nature of the spinal cord and nerves in the back and neck.
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