A corpectomy is surgery to relieve pressure on the spinal cord due to spinal stenosis. In spinal stenosis, bone spurs press against the spinal cord, leading to a condition called myelopathy. This can produce problems with the bowels and bladder and disrupt the way you walk. Fine motor skills of the hand may also be impaired. In a corpectomy, the front part of the spinal column is removed. (Corpus means body, and ectomy means remove.) Bone grafts are used to fill in the space. This procedure is used when bone spurs have developed in more than one vertebra.
What happens during the operation?
Patients are given a general anesthesia to put them to sleep during most spine surgeries. As you sleep, your breathing may be assisted with a ventilator. A ventilator is a device that controls and monitors the flow of air to the lungs.
The surgeon starts by making an incision up the left side of the neck to the ear and then under the jaw to the bottom of the chin. The skin flap is opened to expose the structures of the neck. Retractors are used to separate and hold the muscles and soft tissues apart so the surgeon can work on the front of the spine.
Special instruments are attached either to the skull or the spinal bones to stretch the neck with mild traction. The traction pull spreads the neck joints apart to give the surgeon more room to work. It also takes additional pressure off the spinal cord. Then the surgeon inserts a needle into the disc and does an X-ray to locate the exact sections where the bones are to be removed.
The surgeon carefully cuts part of the anterior longitudinal ligament away from the front section of the spinal column. Instruments are then used to take out the front half of the discs that lie between the vertebral bodies. Next, a small rotary cutting tool (a burr) is used to carefully remove the back half of the discs (called discectomy) and a row of vertebral bodies (called corpectomy). The ring of bone that surrounds and protects the spinal column isn't touched.
When the discs and vertebral bodies are out of the way, the posterior longitudinal ligament can be seen where it covers the front of the spinal cord. This thin ligament is shaved to remove areas that have hardened or buckled, as these areas are known to add pressure to the spinal cord. The surgeon then prepares a bone graft that will fill in the space where the discs and vertebral bodies have been removed. A section of bone is taken from the fibula, the thin bone that runs along the outside of the lower leg. (The main bone of the lower leg is called the tibia.) Some surgeons prefer to take bone from the pelvis instead of the fibula.
Before inserting the bone graft, the surgeon increases the traction pull on the neck to help separate the space even more. The bone graft is sized to fill the full length of the removed section of bone and discs from one end to the other.
The section of bone is grafted into the space where the vertebral bones have been taken out. The graft acts like a supportive column, or strut, to support the elongated space and to prevent the neck from buckling forward. Your surgeon may attach a metal plate along the front of the spine to help lock the new graft in place.
What might go wrong?
As with all major surgical procedures, complications can occur. Some of the most common complications following corpectomy surgery include :
- problems with anesthesia
- nerve damage
- problems with the graft or hardware
- ongoing pain
This is not intended to be a complete list of the possible complications, but these are the most common.
What happens after surgery?
Most patients are placed in a rigid neck brace or a halo vest, for a minimum of three months after surgery. These restrictive measures may not be needed if the surgeon attached metal hardware to the spine during the surgery.
Patients usually stay in the hospital after surgery for up to one week. During this time, a physical therapist will schedule daily sessions to help patients learn safe ways to move, dress, and do activities without putting extra strain on the neck.
Patients are able to return home when their medical condition is stable. However, they are usually required to keep their activities to a minimum in order to give the graft time to heal. Outpatient physical therapy is usually started five weeks after the date of surgery.
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