The surgical decision
Most herniated discs heal after a few months of nonsurgical treatment. Your doctor may recommend treatment options, but only you can decide whether surgery is right for you. Be sure to consider all the risks and benefits before making your decision. Only 10% of people with herniated disc problems have enough pain after 6 weeks of conservative treatment to consider surgery.
Your surgeon will also discuss the risks and benefits of different types of bone graft material. Autograft is the gold standard for rapid healing and fusion, but the hip incision can be painful and at times lead to complications. Allograft (bone-bank) is more commonly used and has proven to be as effective for routine 1 and 2 level fusions in non-smokers.
Who performs the procedure?
A neurosurgeon or an orthopedic surgeon can perform spine surgery. Many spine surgeons have specialized training in complex spine surgery. Ask your surgeon about their training, especially if your case is complex or you’ve had more than one spinal surgery.
What happens before surgery?
You may be scheduled for presurgical tests (e.g., blood test, electrocardiogram, chest X-ray) several days before surgery. In the doctor’s office, you will sign consent and other forms so that the surgeon knows your medical history (allergies, medicines/vitamins, bleeding history, anesthesia reactions, previous surgeries). Discuss all medications (prescription, over-the-counter, and herbal supplements) you are taking with your health care provider. Some medications need to be continued or stopped the day of surgery.
Stop taking all non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (Naprosyn, Advil, Motrin, Nuprin, Aleve, etc.) and blood thinners (Coumadin, Plavix, etc.) 1 to 2 weeks before surgery as directed by the doctor. Additionally, stop smoking, chewing tobacco, and drinking alcohol 1 week before and 2 weeks after surgery because these activities can cause bleeding problems. No food or drink is permitted past midnight the night before surgery.
The most important thing you can do to ensure the success of your spinal surgery is quit smoking. This includes cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and smokeless tobacco (snuff, dip). Nicotine prevents bone growth and puts you at higher risk for a failed fusion. Patients who smoked had failed fusions in up to 40% of cases, compared to only 8% among non-smokers. Smoking also decreases your blood circulation, resulting in slower wound healing and an increased risk of infection. Talk with your doctor about ways to help you quit smoking: nicotine replacements, pills without nicotine (Wellbutrin, Chantix), and tobacco counseling programs.
Morning of surgery
- Shower using antibacterial soap. Dress in freshly washed, loose-fitting clothing.
- Wear flat-heeled shoes with closed backs.
- If you have instructions to take regular medication the morning of surgery, do so with small sips of water.
- Remove make-up, hairpins, contacts, body piercings, nail polish, etc.
- Leave all valuables and jewelry at home (including wedding bands).
- Bring a list of medications (prescriptions, over-the-counter, and herbal supplements) with dosages and the times of day usually taken.
- Bring a list of allergies to medication or foods.
Arrive at the hospital 2 hours before (surgery center 1 hour before) your scheduled surgery time to complete the necessary paperwork and pre-procedure work-ups. An anesthesiologist will talk with you and explain the effects of anesthesia and its risks. An intravenous (IV) line will be placed in your arm.
What happens during surgery?
There are seven steps to the procedure. The operation generally takes 1 to 3 hours.
Step 1: prepare the patient
You will lie on your back on the operative table and be given anesthesia. Once asleep, your neck area is cleansed and prepped. If a fusion is planned and your own bone will be used, the hip area is also prepped to obtain a bone graft. If a donor bone will be used, the hip incision is unnecessary.
Step 2: make an incision
A 2-inch skin incision is made on the right or left side of your neck. The surgeon makes a tunnel to the spine by moving aside muscles in your neck and retracting the trachea, esophagus, and arteries. Finally, the muscles that support the front of the spine are lifted and held aside so the surgeon can clearly see the bony vertebrae and discs.
Step 3: locate the damaged disc
With the aid of a fluoroscope (a special X-ray), the surgeon passes a thin needle into the disc to locate the affected vertebra and disc. The vertebrae bones above and below the damaged disc are spread apart with a special retractor.
Step 4: remove the disc
The outer wall of the disc is cut. The surgeon removes about 2/3 of your disc using small grasping tools, and then looks through a surgical microscope to remove the rest of the disc. The ligament that runs behind the vertebrae is removed to reach the spinal canal. Any disc material pressing on the spinal nerves is removed.
Step 5: decompress the nerve
Bone spurs that press on your nerve root are removed. The foramen, through which the spinal nerve exits, is enlarged with a drill. This procedure, called a foraminotomy, gives your nerves more room to exit the spinal canal.
The disc annulus and nucleus are removed to decompress the spinal cord and nerve root. Bone spurs are removed and the spinal foramen is enlarged to free the nerve.
Step 6. prepare a bone graft fusion
Using a drill, the open disc space is prepared on the top and bottom by removing the outer cortical layer of bone to expose the blood-rich cancellous bone inside. This “bed” will hold the bone graft material that you and your surgeon selected:
Bone graft from your hip. A skin and muscle incision is made over the crest of your hipbone. Next, a chisel is used to cut through the hard outer layer (cortical bone) to the inner layer (cancellous bone). The inner layer contains the bone-growing cells and proteins. The bone graft is then shaped and placed into the “bed” between the vertebrae.
Bone bank or fusion cage. A cadaver bone graft or bioplastic cage is filled with the leftover bone shavings containing bone-growing cells and proteins. The graft is then tapped into the shelf space.
The bone graft is often reinforced with a metal plate screwed into the vertebrae to provide stability during fusion. An x-ray is taken to verify the position of the graft, plate, and screws.
Alternative option: artificial disc replacement. Instead of a bone graft or fusion cage, an artificial disc device is inserted into the empty disc space. In select patients, it may be beneficial to preserve motion. Talk to your doctor – not all insurance companies will pay for this new technology and out-of-pocket expenses may be incurred.
Step 7. close the incision The spreader retractors are removed. The muscle and skin incisions are sutured together. Steri-Strips or biologic glue is placed across the incision.