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Do you struggle with chronic pain that makes daily activities difficult? Perhaps your spine is unstable from spondylolisthesis or a spinal fracture. Or maybe you’re dealing with degenerative disc disease, spinal stenosis, or scoliosis. 

All of these conditions are valid reasons to consider spinal surgery, including spinal fusion. However, not all presentations of these conditions require spinal fusion.  

In many instances, if you’re dealing with any of the above or other back and spine issues, there’s a chance that you may be able to treat them with alternative methods, relying on surgery as a last resort. (This, by the way, often holds true even for severe cases of scoliosis). 

So, if you’re wondering if spinal fusion surgery is right for you, here’s what you need to know. 

What Are the 4 Types of Spinal Fusion? 

Before we tackle the issue of whether spinal fusion is right for you or even what the main types of spinal fusion are, let’s discuss a commonly-asked question about terminology. 

Many people wonder if “spine fusion” or “spine fusion surgery” are the same thing as “spinal fusion” and “spinal fusion surgery”, respectively. 

The word “spinal” means “relating to the spine”. Therefore most medical publications and physicians as well as orthopedic specialists (like us!) use the word “spinal” for fusion surgeries, of which there are four main types

  1. Anterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion Surgery (ALIF) 
  1. Extreme Lateral Lumbar Interbody Fusion Surgery (XLIF) 
  1. Posterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion Surgery (PLIF) 
  1. Transforaminal Lumbar Interbody Fusion (TLIF) 

The above types have more or less the same goal: to create “a solid union between two or more vertebrae” to “support unstable areas” and assist in “strengthening and stabilizing the spine”, thereby alleviating severe and chronic pain. The difference would be the approach of the surgery and how the disc space is accessed.   

Asking the Right Questions: Is Spinal Fusion Surgery Right for You? 

Ask your doctor the following questions to determine if you should get spinal fusion: 

  • Am I even a candidate for spinal fusion or are other surgical approaches better? 
  • If spinal fusion is the best surgical option for me, is it absolutely necessary in my case, or are there other treatment options available? 
  • What are the potential risks and complications associated with spine fusion surgery? 
  • What is the success rate of spine fusion surgery for my specific condition? 
  • What is the recovery process like, and what limitations can I expect? 

According to Healthgrades, you may be a candidate for spinal fusion surgery if: 

  • Your pain is chronic 
  • Your spine condition affects just one or two discs or vertebrae 
  • Nonsurgical management techniques such as medication management, physical therapy, and bracing have not worked 

If the below statements hold true, then you may not be a candidate for spinal fusion surgery: 

  • Your spine condition affects discs or vertebrae at multiple levels of your spine, meaning that fusion would result in losing too much spinal flexibility 
  • You have a severe illness or infection or a comorbidity that would make having a spinal fusion less optimal for you. 

Here’s another important consideration; just because you are a candidate for spinal fusion doesn’t mean you have to or even should get this procedure performed. This is why it’s important to ask the above questions. We always recommend beginning with the least aggressive approach first. It’s with that in mind that we offer the following suggested courses of action. 

4 Nonsurgical Alternatives to Spinal Fusion 

Doctor and patient talk about spine fusion

A majority of people suffering from various spine conditions find that surgery isn’t completely necessary. If you find yourself in one of those instances, what do you do? 

Here are 3 nonsurgical alternatives to spinal fusion to try: 

  • Lifestyle Modifications: Changing your lifestyle by doing things like quitting smoking or losing weight may reduce your pain levels.  
  • Medication & Other Pain Management Techniques: Using NSAIDS or other over-the-counter pain medications and pain management techniques (such as corticosteroid shots, heat/cold therapy, or nerve blocks) can be an effective way to combat pain caused by spinal conditions. 
  • Physical Therapy: If medication is a band-aid, physical therapy is an ointment that can help alleviate pain. While it isn’t a cure-all, physical therapy is one of the most effective nonsurgical interventions for spinal issues. The Schroth Method in particular can be extremely effective for individuals with scoliosis. 
  • Mind-Body Therapies: Dealing with chronic pain is not easy. Treating it isn’t easy either. What many people forget is that pain is a multidimensional experience that not only involves physical factors, but also sensory, cognitive, and affective factors. Therefore trying mind-body therapies and modalities like mindfulness meditation can be an effective way to deal with “what is”. While these therapies may not change the pain at all, they can help you better cope with it. If the above do not help, it may be time to reach out to us to see what other options are best for you.   

Explore Your Surgical & Nonsurgical Treatment Options 

Wondering what your surgical and nonsurgical options are to alleviate chronic back, neck, arm, or leg pain associated with spinal conditions? Contact Desert Spine and Scoliosis Center today. We can help you get the life you love back.