What might go wrong?
- nerve damage
- problems with the graft
- ongoing pain
This is not intended to be a complete list of the possible complications, but these are the most common.
Problems with Anesthesia
Problems can arise when the anesthesia given during surgery causes a reaction with other drugs the patient is taking. In rare cases, a patient may have problems with the anesthesia itself. In addition, anesthesia can affect lung function because the lungs don't expand as well while a person is under anesthesia. Be sure to discuss the risks and your concerns with your anesthesiologist.
Thrombophlebitis (Blood Clots)
Thrombophlebitis, sometimes called deep venous thrombosis (DVT), can occur after any operation. It occurs when the blood in the large veins of the leg forms blood clots. This may cause the leg to swell and become warm to the touch and painful. If the blood clots in the veins break apart, they can travel to the lung, where they lodge in the capillaries and cut off the blood supply to a portion of the lung. This is called a pulmonary embolism. (Pulmonary means lung, and embolism refers to a fragment of something traveling through the vascular system.) Most surgeons take preventing DVT very seriously. There are many ways to reduce the risk of DVT, but probably the most effective is getting you moving as soon as possible. Two other commonly used preventative measures include
- pressure stockings to keep the blood in the legs moving
- medications that thin the blood and prevent blood clots from forming
Infection following spine surgery is rare but can be a very serious complication. Some infections may show up early, even before you leave the hospital. Infections on the skin's surface usually go away with antibiotics. Deeper infections that spread into the bones and soft tissues of the spine are harder to treat and may require additional surgery to treat the infected portion of the spine.
Any surgery that is done near the spinal canal can potentially cause injury to the spinal cord or spinal nerves. Injury can occur from bumping or cutting the nerve tissue with a surgical instrument, from swelling around the nerve, or from the formation of scar tissue. An injury to these structures can cause muscle weakness and a loss of sensation to the areas supplied by the nerve.
The nerve to the voice box is sometimes injured during surgery on the front of the neck. Surgeons usually prefer to do surgery on the left side of the neck where the path of the nerve is more predictable than on the right side. During surgery, the nerve may be stretched too far when retractors are used to hold the muscles and soft tissues apart. When this happens, patients may be hoarse for a few days or weeks after surgery. In rare cases in which the nerve is actually cut, patients may end up with ongoing minor problems of hoarseness, voice fatigue, or difficulty making high tones.
Problems with the Graft
Fusion surgery requires bone to be grafted into the spinal column. The graft is commonly taken from the top rim of the pelvis. There is a risk of having pain, infection, or weakness in the area where the graft is taken.
After the graft is placed, the surgeon checks the position of the graft before completing the surgery. However, the graft may shift slightly soon after surgery to the point it is no longer able to hold the spine stable. When the graft migrates out of position, it can cause injury to the nearby tissues. A second surgery may be needed to align the graft and to apply metal plates and screws to hold it firmly in place.
Sometimes the bones do not fuse as planned. This is called a nonunion, or pseudarthosis. (The term pseudarthrosis means false joint.) If the joint motion from a nonunion continues to cause pain, you may need a second operation. In the second procedure, the surgeon usually adds more bone graft. Metal plates and screws may also be added to rigidly secure the bones so they will fuse together.
ACDF is a complex surgery. Not all patients get complete pain relief with this procedure. As with any surgery, you should expect some pain afterward. If the pain continues or becomes unbearable, talk to your surgeon about treatments that can help control your pain.