What might go wrong?
As with all major surgical procedures, complications can occur. Some of the most common complications following corpectomy surgery include:
- problems with anesthesia
- nerve damage
- problems with the graft or hardware
- 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 very 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. Your surgeon may give you antibiotics before spine surgery when the procedure requires bone grafts or hardware (plates, rods, or screws).
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 or Hardware
Corpectomy surgery requires bone to be grafted into the spinal column. The graft is taken from either the top rim of the pelvis or, more commonly, from the fibula bone along the outside of the lower leg. 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 may cause injury to the nearby tissues. When the graft shifts out of place, a second surgery may be needed to align the graft and apply more hardware to hold it firmly in place.
Hardware can also cause problems. Screws or pins may loosen and irritate the nearby soft tissues. Also, the metal plates can sometimes break. The surgeon may suggest another surgery either to take out the hardware or to add more hardware to solve the problem.
Sometimes the bones do not fuse as planned. This is called a nonunion, or pseudarthrosis. (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. If hardware was used in the first surgery, the surgeon will check to make sure it is attached firmly. Hardware may also be added to secure the bones so they will fuse together.
Corpectomy is a complex surgery. Not all patients feel complete pain relief with this procedure. The main goal of this surgery is to get pressure off the spinal cord and to try and prevent further problems. 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.
What happens after surgery?
Most patients are placed in a rigid neck brace or a halo vest, for a minimum of three months after surgery. These restrictive measures may not be needed if the surgeon attached metal hardware to the spine during the surgery.
Patients usually stay in the hospital after surgery for up to one week. During this time, a Physical Therapist will schedule daily sessions to help patients learn safe ways to move, dress, and do activities without putting extra strain on the neck.
Patients are able to return home when their medical condition is stable. However, they are usually required to keep their activities to a minimum in order to give the graft time to heal. Outpatient Physical Therapy is usually started five weeks after the date of surgery.