The surgery is termed an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, or ACDF for short. When a patient undergoes a single-level cervical fusion surgery, it is typically a two part process:
Decompression. The surgeon removes the intervertebral disc between the adjacent vertebrae, as well as any other structures that might be irritating a spinal nerve or the spinal cord such as bony overgrowths (bone spurs).
What is a bone spur? Bone spurs are an indication that there is degeneration of the spine. The goal of the spur is to hinder movement that might cause more damage. The spur may not be the actual cause of pain or the bone spur could add pressure on the spinal cord and surrounding nerves resulting in discomfort. Although the word spur implies a spiked shape, they are actually smooth structures that form over a along the edges of bones, particularly the edges of joints over a prolonged period of time. The medical term for bone spurs is osteophyte and they represent an enlargement of the normal bony structure. They are a normal finding as we age. It is a quite common finding over the age of 60. All spinal discs and joints degenerate due to aging over time.
Fusion. After the decompression part of the surgery, that spinal level needs to be stabilized. The surgeon instruments the two adjacent vertebrae and adds bone graft to promote bone growth and ultimately a solid fusion between the two vertebrae. This will form one single structure in order to stop movement between the two bones to prevent discomfort. This keeps you from stretching nearby ligaments, muscles, and nerves that may be causing pain and suffering.
How will my neck movement be affected?
The top two cervical levels account for most of the necks movement. It is rare for either top level of the cervical spine to need a fusion.
After the period of 6 to 12 months following ACDF surgery, during which fusion sets up, a single level cervical fusion does not significantly affect a patient’s overall cervical range of motion. While motion is lost at the vertebral level that is fused, adjacent levels (above above and below) tend to gain mobility, which mitigates at least some of the loss from the single level.
Some patients report increase neck mobility as compared to before surgery since painful sensations in the neck were causing limitations of normal movement. Lost range of motion due to pain can be gained after surgery.