Neck Fusion Side Effects in the Low Back?

By Chris Centeno, MD /

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neck fusion side effects

While it seems common sense that all the parts of our spine are connected, because of orthopedic hyperspecialization, most patients believe that their necks and their backs are separate areas. After all, they have different names. Adding to the long list of neck fusion side effects, a new study shows just how wrong they are by recording changes in the low back and pelvis after a surgeon fuses the neck!

How We Came to Have a Messed Up Idea of the Connected Body

One of two stupid things we as medical doctors did regarding the connected body was to allow orthopedic hyperspecialization. We now have the foot and ankle specialist, the knee expert, the hip guru, and the spine guy. Why was this dumb? Because the body is one connected machine, and this sends the message to patients that it’s not connected. So it’s not hard to see why patients can’t make the leap between their neck and their shoulder or their neck and their back.

The second biggest bad idea in medicine with regard to connectivity is how we name things. The fact that we have different names for the neck and the back also gives the same message that these are different things. Instead, our naming should have been something like spine-cervical area and spine-lumbar area just to drive home the point that there’s a spine that has parts that are connected but designed to do different things.

The Connected Spine

Your spine is one machine from its top to the bottom. The neck is connected to the upper back, which is connected to the lower back, which is connected to the pelvis. What happens in one part of it impacts all other parts. So if your neck curve isn’t right, it impacts your low back, which impacts your pelvis. If this is hard to believe, then let’s look at a new study that painfully proves the point.

The New Neck Fusion Research

A neck fusion is where the doctor uses bolts, screws, and plates to make one part of the spine solid. The discs that normally allow motion are removed, and bone growth is promoted at that spot either chemically or through the addition of metal cages. Suffice it to say that this part of the spine no longer moves normally. However, while we’ve seen many neck fusion side effects, what we haven’t been able to prove is that if it’s fused in anything but the perfect anatomic position, then this may impact other areas.

The authors of the new study observed 48 patients who had undergone an ACDF surgery (a type of neck fusion from the front) with whole spine X-rays at 1,3,6, and 12 months after surgery. They noted that changes in the neck curve from surgery impacted the angles of the tailbone and pelvis! So messing with one end of the spine impacted the other end.

I drew a little diagram above that demonstrates how this works. The fact that the low back now has less of a curve after neck surgery means that the discs there will take on more body weight. This can lead to eventual low-back-disc failures, like bulges, degeneration, and herniations. On the other hand, if you have too much curve, it may be possible to correct that through the neck? Not sure that’s a smart idea, but you can read between the lines of the research to see that that’s where the spine-surgeon authors want to head.

How to Avoid Neck Fusion Side Effects if You Have One Planned

First, make sure there are no other options other than surgery. We see patients every day who have been told they need a neck fusion, but by using advanced regenerative medicine and interventional orthopedics, we’re able to help them avoid this invasive fate. Second, if you absolutely need a neck fusion, then make sure the surgeon has the ability to ensure you get fused into a normal curve. While some surgeons now pay attention to this, most don’t. If the surgeon won’t have this discussion, find a new doctor!

The upshot? I have seen countless patients who have developed back pain after having their neck operated on. While we know of a few mechanisms that can explain that link, this newest of the neck fusion side effects makes all kinds of sense. It’s all connected, folks!

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10 thoughts on “Neck Fusion Side Effects in the Low Back?

  1. Julia Pazzi Clements

    I so agree! I had a C5/6 discectomy and bone spur removal, but was originally told it would be a fusion. My PT threw my into core exercises before and after surgery. I thought he was nuts, but my neck felt better! Still needed surgery as I lost use of my hand and arm, which I regained afterwards. Its all connected. And I adore my gem of a physical therapist.

    1. Regenexx Team Post author

      Julia,
      We agree! Physical therapists are heroes!

  2. ron morrison

    Great information! Please provide more on this subject.

  3. Caroll Vasquez

    If you already had the fusion, what can you do to avoid lower back issues?

    1. Regenexx Team Post author

      Caroll,
      Thankfully, there are techniques that can help. Please see: https://regenexx.com/blog/lost-low-back-curve/

  4. cherie

    how to prove this to workman comp

    1. Regenexx Team Post author

      cherie,

      You’d first need an exam to see if that’s what’s going on in your case, and if that’s the issue, diagnose and document the issue. These are the Physicians who can do that type of exam: https://regenexx.com/find-a-physician/

  5. Barb

    I have a fusion in my neck and my lower back. I suffer everyday. I had my neck fusion in 2010, now I have tingling and numbness in my neck and my head and face. I am losing my hair but I don’t know if this is related. I have numbness down both arms and my hands. I had lower back fusion in 2012, my siactic nerve pain is awful. Severe pain down my leg, sometimes hot burning pain or ice cold. The middle of my back is taking a beaten and causes me much pain. I feel very discouraged.

    1. Regenexx Team Post author

      Barb,

      Unfortunately, this is not uncommon for fusion patients, as preventing movement causes additional stress on the vertebrae above and below the fusion causing damage. Having both a neck and low back fusion makes the situation worse. We can often help. Please see: https://regenexx.com/blog/pain-after-neck-fusion-2/ and https://regenexx.com/blog/pain-after-back-fusion-adjacent-segment-disease/ If you’d like to see if we can help in your case, please submit the Candidate form or call 866-684-9919

Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications.
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