Disc Replacement Vs. Minimally Invasive Cervical Fusion
Awake Spinal Fusion is a minimally invasive procedure that doesn’t require general anesthesia. Instead of a lengthy hospital stay, you’re up and about in just a few hours.
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Disc Replacement Vs. Minimally Invasive Cervical Fusion

By Dr. Alok Sharan
Nov. 20, 2022

There’s nothing more painful than living with neck pain, as well as going through the decision process of having a disc replacement versus minimally invasive cervical fusion. You can’t do everyday tasks if you’re hurting.

Most people will experience neck pain at some point in their lives, and about half will deal with it every year. Pain in your neck is rarely a sign of anything serious, but if it persists, you might need surgery.

It depends on your condition and other factors whether you need a bone fusion versus a disc replacement in the neck. To help you decide, we’ll explain the difference between a minimally invasive cervical fusion versus a disc replacement.

The Interesting Option: Minimally Invasive Cervical Fusion

The long-term outcomes of disc replacement aren’t as clear since it’s a relatively newer surgery. It might be a better option for some patients than cervical fusion. Also, some patients say they can move better with a disc replacement. Replacing a disc means it works like your body’s natural disc. It may let you move like you normally do and make your spine more mobile.

Moreover, the vertebrae below and above the artificial disc will be less stressed if the disc replacement allows more movement. Patients could expect less disc degeneration in the future if there’s no added pressure on other vertebrae. It’s been shown that disc replacements reduce secondary surgical procedures.

In addition, disc replacements traditionally can speed up recovery — but this fact is being tested by today’s modern cervical fusion procedures and technologies. In a traditional minimally invasive cervical fusion, patients can get back to their regular activities after several months — but with “awake” spinal fusion surgery, it’s usually only a matter of a few days, or sometimes even a few hours.

On the other hand, a disc replacement usually takes less time to recover since a patient doesn’t have to wait for bones to fuse. After some disc replacements, patients can resume normal activities in four to six weeks. Some patients with disc replacements return to work significantly faster than those with fusions,, though, according to certain studies.

As for minimally invasive cervical fusion procedures, they weld bones together and stop them from moving. Combined with today’s technology and procedures, this option is the best for many patients. Even though disc replacement is seemingly better than cervical fusion for some patients, not every individual is a good candidate for disc replacements.

Depending on your needs, your doctor will recommend the best option.

Neck Pain and Minimally Invasive Cervical Fusion

The spine is fused when two or more bones, called vertebrae, are joined. In cervical fusion, the vertebrae in the neck area of the spine are brought together safely and soundly. The bones cannot move abnormally when fused together, so the spine is more stable and the patient’s pain drastically decreases.

Discs separate the seven vertebrae of your cervical spine. In between the vertebrae, there are intervertebral discs that act like shock absorbers. The vertebrae are also held together by these shock absorbers. Discs can break down and stop working properly. This can cause pain in the cervical spine. There’s also the possibility of arthritis or narrowing of the spinal canal, which can cause neck pain.

The majority of patients with neck pain don’t need minimally invasive cervical fusion surgery, and your doctor will probably recommend other treatment options first. Your doctor might suggest cervical fusion if your neck pain doesn’t get better without surgery. To improve spine stability or fix a spinal deformity or injury, surgeons may perform spinal fusions after removing herniated or damaged discs.

What to Expect During and After Fusion Surgery

A minimally invasive cervical fusion can be done in a few different ways. Fusions aren’t discectomies, laminotomies, or foraminotomies. The best method will depend on where your pain is and what the operation is for. Patients usually get anesthesia first so they don’t feel any pain during the procedure. In the case of awake spinal surgery, local anesthesia is used so your body can stay awake (versus general anesthesia). Your recoup time is much shorter with less potential complications.

To access the vertebrae, the surgeon makes an incision. As the bones heal, they’ll place a bone graft between the vertebrae, which will fuse them together. A synthetic material may be used instead of bone grafts to join the vertebrae.

Small incisions can be used to perform most modern spinal fusions. Historically, traditional spinal fusions usually require two to three days in the hospital so your doctor can monitor your recovery if you took general anesthesia. But with local anesthesia, awake surgery lets most people go home nearly immediately after surgery (outpatient procedure). Some patients may feel uncomfortable after surgery, but pain medication usually takes care of that.

Your vertebrae usually fuse and heal after a few months. To keep the spine aligned, your doctor might recommend wearing a brace.

Benefits of Minimally Invasive Cervical Fusion

Back pain and a poor quality of life can be reduced with minimally invasive cervical fusion surgery — especially if it’s awake surgery (local anesthesia and not general anesthesia).

One of the most successful procedures is what experts call an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF). By accessing the spine from the front of the neck rather than the back, surgeons can remove a herniated disc and fuse the vertebrae together. Many studies say most patients experience great success with ACDF.

A cervical fusion procedure is generally safe, and complications are rare. Infection, poor healing, or anesthesia reactions are risks with any surgery, but minimally invasive cervical fusion (awake spinal fusion) cuts back on much, if not all, of these issues. Whether cervical fusion is right for you will be determined by your doctor.

Disc Replacement: The Basics

A surgical procedure called cervical disc replacement is an alternative to cervical fusion. Intervertebral disc replacement involves removing the damaged disc and replacing it with an artificial one. There’s no welding involved in disc replacement, unlike cervical fusion.

A patient will receive anesthesia before a disc replacement. A small incision will then be made on the neck’s front or side. Then the surgeon will remove the damaged disc and secure an artificial disc in its place. The patient is then sutured up.

Increased spine mobility is one of the main benefits of disc replacement, some patients say. After surgery, patients can potentially keep doing their regular daily activities and maintain normal neck movements thanks to disc replacements.

While disc replacements are generally safe, they come with some risks, such as infections, bleeding, and anesthesia reactions. A disc replacement could also cause an allergic reaction. The benefits and risks of the procedure will be discussed with you by your doctor.

Awake Spinal Fusion and Surgery

Awake Spinal Fusion is here to educate you on the basics of minimally invasive cervical fusion surgery, your spine, back pain, awake spinal surgery techniques and technology, outpatient surgery options, and much more.