While most cases of lower back pain will resolve with non-surgical treatments, some patients with chronic back and/or leg pain can benefit greatly from a surgery with a strange name: ALIF, or anterior lumbar interbody fusion, according to Dr. Praveen Kadimcherla with Atlantic Spine Center.
Most spinal surgeries are approached from the back, or posterior, side of the patient. An ALIF, however, accesses the spine using an anterior or front approach. The goal of the surgery is to fuse together painful vertebrae to heal into a single, solid bone. What spine conditions can prompt the need for an ALIF? According to Dr. Kadimcherla, the procedure can treat these conditions:
- Instability and trauma
- Degenerative disc disease
- Disc tears
- Failed back and neck surgery
- Facet joint syndrome
- Foraminal stenosis
But regardless of the exact condition it’s meant to correct, ALIF surgery aims to stop long-lasting pain that hasn’t responded to other therapies. “When motion is the source of the pain, spinal fusion surgeries such as ALIF can prove extremely helpful,” Dr. Kadimcherla explains. “If painful vertebrae cannot move, then they should not hurt.”
Benefits of ALIF
Compared to spine surgeries that approach the spine from the back, ALIF offers several key benefits, Dr. Kadimcherla says. They include:
- Leaving back muscles and surrounding nerves undisturbed
- Offering a larger surface area to operate from
- Elevating the disc space more effectively, relieving painful pressure on surrounding nerves
- Using a larger implant, leading to more stability in the affected area of the spine
How is the surgery performed? Your surgeon will make a small incision in the lower abdomen, carefully moving your abdominal muscles, organs and large blood vessels aside to access the spine. Then your damaged lumbar disc is removed, and a special implant called a cage is placed in the resulting space, restoring correct spacing between vertebrae. Within 2 to 3 hours, the surgery is complete and all structures in your abdomen are returned to their original spots.
“An anterior approach may be chosen for a variety of reasons, especially if you’d already undergone several previous spine surgeries approached from the back,” Dr. Kadimcherla explains. “The front approach also gives the surgeon more direct access to your vertebral discs, and the recovery can be quicker.”
Full recovery from spinal fusion surgeries such as ALIF take time, mainly because the bone graft needs to grow and fill in spaces around the implant to form a “bone bridge” connecting the surrounding vertebrae. This fusion may also require screws or rods to be implanted during the surgery.
But short-term recovery is relatively quick, Dr. Kadimcherla notes. Most patients remain in the hospital for 1 to 3 days after surgery, where pain will be controlled and you’ll start to stand and walk around more and more.
To speed your recovery, Dr. Kadimcherla advises ALIF patients to perform any prescribed exercises diligently, as well as to walk about carefully. “It’s also important to avoid any twisting motions with your back as well as avoid bending or lifting heavy items,” he says.
If all goes well – as it usually does – ALIF patients can expect big benefits when their recovery is complete: A huge reduction in lower back pain, as well as in any disability they might have experienced before the surgery.
“Talk to your doctor about the possibility of ALIF surgery if your lower back pain has been insistent and long-lasting,” Dr. Kadimcherla says. “Your surgeon will be able to determine if you’re a good fit for this innovative procedure.”