Herniated discs are a common reason for workers to undergo a spinal fusion. Sometimes, the spine is twisted or bent to an extreme degree in a workplace accident. Sometimes, so much pressure is exerted on a disc that it ruptures or herniates. The softer gel inside the disc may oozes into the surrounding region. If this disc material presses on a nerve root, the worker may experience excruciating pain.
In many instances, injured workers undergo spinal fusion surgery only after less invasive procedures have been attempted to relieve pain caused by nerve root impingement.
What is Spinal Fusion?
This is a surgical procedure in which bone from the pelvic bone, a bone bank or synthetic bone substitute is used to fuse vertebrae together. Spinal fusion limits movement of the vertebrae involved to limit movement that could adversely impact nerve roots exiting the spine, or surrounding bone and/or tissue.
Relieving Nerve Pressure
Grafting bone to adjacent vertebrae “decompresses” the area between them, and this commonly relieves pressure on nerve roots emanating from the spinal cord. When disc material or other tissue presses on a nerve root, the patient may experience severe or even debilitating pain.
Variables from Patient to Patient
Successful spinal fusion surgery will often allow a worker to resume most normal activities, including work duties. However, there are recovery times and risks to consider. Always rely on your physician for information about how spinal fusion surgery may specifically impact you.
Recovery times and risk factors greatly vary from one patient to another. Key variables may have an impact on the timing and potential for a full recovery, including:
- Physical condition
- Lifestyle habits
Recovering from Spinal Fusion Surgery
According to one physician, recovery from spinal fusion surgery often takes 3-6 months. During this period, many recovering patients undergo physical therapy to improve the chances for success.
Here are key steps in the recovery process, although this may vary from patient to patient:
- In the hospital – Several days of wound care in the hospital. During this time, patients learn about pain management and how to move so as not to harm the healing process. For example, patients are often taught the “log-rolling” technique for getting in and out of bed without twisting the spine. This allows the vertebrae to properly fuse, and it speeds overall healing.
- At home – Once the patient returns home, wound care remains a priority. Gradually, back movements increase to gradually move the patient toward resuming normal activities.
- Light stretching – Approximately one month later, it is possible to begin light stretching exercises under the guidance of a physical therapist.
- Continued physical therapy – At a pace appropriate for the patient, physical therapy will gradually prepare the patient to increasingly return to normal activities, including work duties as appropriate. This therapy may go on for several months or more, depending on the patient.
Workers who lift heavy objects while on the job must take extra care in resuming normal activities. Those that try to lift too much during their recovery may compromise the spinal decompression that relieved the pain, so it is vital to follow physician’s instructions as well as those of the physical therapist.
Again, every patient’s experience varies, so physician recommendations must be followed.
For many patients, proper nutrition can positively impact the healing process. Foods rich in calcium facilitate bone growth and strengthening in the area of the bone graft. Proper intake of essential minerals and vitamins may help to reduce inflammation and promote tissue recovery at the surgical site.
It is also important to stay away from nicotine, because it may inhibit proper spinal fusion.
While many patients will not face permanent restrictions after going through a spinal fusion, some may. Anytime two vertebrae are fused together, flexibility in that area of the spine is impacted. Although some patients enjoy complete pain relief, others still have some amount of pain even after the procedure.
If you or a family member suffers a back injury at work, it is important to get the medical treatment provided for under Minnesota’s workers’ comp law. We make it possible to discuss your case with an attorney at no cost to you. To learn more about this complimentary consultation, please contact us.