As I was writing the previous few posts I realized that I was relying on terms such as pedicle screw and intervertebral spacer to begin the explain techniques used to achieve spinal fusion. Before we get further into our discussion on these techniques I think it would benefit you, devoted Spinal (con)Fusion reader, if I spent a few posts discussing the various implants used during spinal fusion procedures. It seems like in my clinic everyone knows someone who didn’t do well after getting “a whole bunch of screws and rods in their back”. Granted, on their own these sound like medieval torture devices that no sane person would want implanted into their spine. Hopefully by shining some light on the screws, rods and various other spinal implants used during fusion procedures, I can put prospective patients’ minds at ease if they’re considering a spinal fusion.
In order to appreciate the benefits of today’s spinal instrumentation, you must first understand how terribly inadequate early non-instrumented spinal fusions were. Recall that we discussed that the main goal of a spinal fusion procedure is to promote bone growth across one or more spinal motion segments. This bone growth immobilizes what is felt to be an unstable, and thus painful, part of the spine. While spinal fusions have been done since the early 20th century, the only strategy that early spine surgeons could employ to achieve a bony fusion was to harvest autograft (bone harvested from a site within the patient such as the spinal lamina or the iliac crest) and lay it down over an exposed part of the spine that they wished to fuse. This primitive in-situ fusion technique, first described by Albee and Hibbs in the early 1900s, was problematic for two reasons. First, there was no good way to correct spinal deformity while promoting a bony fusion. Thus, after a long, morbid surgery, patients were often fused with painfully deformed spines and no better than they were prior to surgery. Second, in order for any bone to fuse together the adjacent pieces of bone have to be immobilized (think of a cast on a broken arm.) In an in-situ fusion, with the bone graft simply laying on top of a segment of spine, the only way to immobilize a patient’s spine to promote bone growth was to keep them on bedrest, often in full body braces or casts, FOR MONTHS. UGH! What’s worse is that because of these inadequate forms of immobilization, in half the cases the new bone wouldn’t grow, the spinal segment wouldn’t fuse and the patient would be left with a painful condition called a non-union, or failed fusion, often requiring subsequent revision surgeries. It’s no surprise, then, why many at the time considered early spinal fusion procedures to be painfully ineffective.
Beginning in the mid-20th century, various forms of spinal instrumentation were developed in order to help mitigate the above limitations of early in-situ fusions. First, spinal implants provide the necessary internal bracing that immobilizes the diseased motion segment so that robust bone growth can occur. No more full-body casts! Also, spinal implants, particularly the intervertebral spacers inserted into the disc space at the front of the spine, allow for correction of spinal deformity. This deformity correction, equally important as correction of instability, restores the spine to its normal form and alignment prior to it being permanently immobilized by the new bone growth of a spinal fusion. In short, spinal implants create the optimal conditions for new bone to grow to achieve a spinal fusion and thus correct painful spinal instability and deformity.
In our next post I’ll dive right into the world of spinal implants with a discussion on pedicle screws and other forms of posterior instrumentation.
Thanks for reading!
J. Alex Thomas, M.D.