Neck pain is a common affliction that can be caused by a variety of factors. While many of these factors take care of themselves over time, a few require more proactive measures. Particularly if the pain is caused by spinal compression or by a damaged or diseased disk located in the cervical spine (the portion of the spine that includes the neck), surgery may become the recommended course of action.
The cervical spine is comprised of seven vertebrae with six discs separating them. In the event one of the discs begins to bulge or becomes herniated, the resulting pain can be debilitating. The usual first step to address the problem is to try noninvasive therapies to reduce the pain and resolve the issue. When this fails, though, surgery to remove the disc often becomes necessary.
During such a surgery, the surgeon will usually gain access to the affected region through the front of the neck, or anteriorly. Occasionally, however, it is necessary to gain access through the back of the neck, or posteriorly. The surgeon will then decompress the cervical spinal cord by remove the offending disc(s) and, if necessary, the corresponding vertebral body (cervical corpectomy).
In most cases, this leaves the spine in a state of instability. With the disc(s) and potentially a vertebra removed, the vertebrae above and below the created void can begin to move excessively, thus contributing toward further pain and other complications. To address this problem, a cervical fusion can be performed.
Typically, a cervical fusion involves inserting a bone graft between the two vertebrae. Over time, the vertebrae will fuse with the bone graft to form a continuous bone mass. Alternatively, the surgeon may insert a titanium cage containing materials that will cause the same effect.
In addition to procedures involving a cervical decompression or a cervical corpectomy, a cervical fusion may also be performed to address degenerative conditions associated with aging, vertebral misalignment (spondylolisthesis), spinal injuries, or congenital deformities.
Following a cervical fusion surgery, it generally takes about three months for the fusion to be completed. During that time, the patient may be required to wear a neck brace to restrict movement and allow the fusion to occur. If the fusion is unsuccessful, it may become necessary to repeat the procedure.
As with any surgical procedure, potential cervical fusion surgery patients should seek a second opinion and ask any questions they may have. The risks of the fusion are rarely serious, though, and most people recover without suffering any significant consequences. Once the fusion is complete, the patient can typically expect to regain full or nearly-full mobility.