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What can go wrong?

With any form of surgery there may be complications. Serious complications are rare, but your surgeon should discuss these potential problems with you prior to you deciding if you wish to proceed with surgery.


Infection following this procedure is extremely rare, but if this occurs, the vast majority of infections will affect only the wound (a superficial infection), which requires some dressings, removal of a stitch and a short course of treatment with antibiotics. Deeper infections are much less common and very occasionally may require a further operation to wash out the infected operation site. Infection of an operated disc space or of bone may require initial intravenous antibiotics, and then several weeks or months of oral antibiotics until the infection is controlled.


Significant blood loss is very rare after this operation, however very occasionally patients will bleed a lot and a collection of the blood will press on the nerves. If this occurs a further operation will be required to remove the blood collection.

Dural Tear or Cerebrospinal Fluid Leak (CSF Leak)

This occurs when the sac (dura) surrounding the nerves and the brain is opened, allowing the fluid within the sac (Cerebrospinal Fluid CSF) to leak out of the sac. This is usually treated by placing a material over the tear, which assists the closure of the wound. The patient may experience a headache following the surgery, but the vast majority of patients will be treated with only a few days bed rest, while the headache resolves and the leak seals.

Nerve Damage and Paralysis

Paralysis is always a potential risk of spine surgery, yet although this risk exists in the vast majority of operative cases this risk is extremely low. Factors that may increase the risk of paralysis include more complex operations as well as the area of the spine that is operated on. In the presence of pre-existing nerve or spinal cord damage causing muscle weakness or where a nerve or the spinal cord is already squashed there is an increased risk of these structures being injured because of the manipulation needed to try to free the nerve or spinal cord. Nerve or spinal cord damage may also affect control of the bladder and bowel.

The risk of damage to the nerves or spinal cord is extremely rare with this operation degree however a patient needs to be discuss with the operating surgeon the risks on an individual basis.

Laryngeal Nerve Palsy (Hoarseness)

The surgical approach to the cervical spine from the front is less painful than approaching  from behind but does have its drawbacks – there is a small risk of hoarseness, due to damage to the laryngeal nerve. In the vast majority of patients this is due to stretching of the nerve and gets better without treatment. Rarely this is permanent, and requires treatment from an Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon.

Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia)

Temporary difficulty swallowing, because the voice box (larynx) and throat (oesophagus) need to be pushed to one side, is very common following anterior cervical surgery. This usually resolves within a few days to weeks and is rarely persistent.


There is absolutely no doubt that smoking reduces the success rate of fusion. Smoking interferes with the development of new blood vessels which are essential for developing new bone.

Revision Surgery

Under certain circumstances further surgery may be required if a complication occurs. Fortunately this is rare occurrence , but causes for this include  a persistent CSF leak, deep wound infection, failure of the spinal instrumentation and failure to achieve a spinal fusion.

General Complications of Surgery

Patients undergoing spinal surgery are at risk of medial complications. The risk depends upon an individual patients health and past medical history. The relative risks should be discussed with the operating surgeon prior to deciding to proceed with surgery.

Potential serious complications include:

Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) and 

Pulmonary Embolus (PE)

This is when a blood clot forms within the legs blocking the veins deep within the leg. Occasionally this may lead to a pulmonary embolus. A blood clot forms in the lungs which may cause severe shortness of breath or on very rare occasions death.

Increased risks for DVT and PE include prolonged bed rest, extensive surgery, obesity, cancer, previous DVT, paralysed leg/s and heart failure.

To prevent DVT and PE the patient will have elastic stockings put on prior to surgery. While in surgery, the patient has leg pumps fitted around the calves to improve the circulation. This is continued after the operation until the patient is mobile.

The patient is encouraged to mobilize out of bed as soon as possible following the operation, usually the day after surgery. Before this, the patient can wiggle the toes and move the legs around in bed as soon as wakening from the anaesthetic. Blood thinning injections may be used in patients who are at high risk of a DVT or PE, this is generally avoided prior to the surgery to prevent excess bleeding.

Myocardial Infarction (MI)

MI or heart attack occurs when there insufficient blood supply to the heart. This is more likely to occur if a patient has had previous heart problems.


CVA or Stoke is when there is inadequate blood supply to the brain, which leads to an area of the brain becoming damaged. This is more likely if a patient has had a previous problem.


Death due to elective spinal surgery is extremely rare, however death can occur with any surgery and usually occurs after the operation. The most common reasons are myocardial infarct (heart attack) due to the stress of the surgery, a rare reaction to a drug (anaphylaxis) or pulmonary embolus.