All surgery includes the risk of complications. Complex spine surgery is no different. Incidence rates are highly variable and depend on the number of individual patient risk factors.
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Scoliosis and Spine Surgery Risks and Complication Factors

Complications - Scoliosis Pre and Post Surgery X-ray
With any surgery, whether scoliosis surgery, spine surgery, or complex deformity surgery, there is the risk of complications. When a physician performs surgery near the spine and spinal cord, these complications can be very serious if they occur. The chance that any of these complications will occur during your surgery or during your recovery is usually very small. You should discuss these complications with your doctor before surgery if you have any questions/doubts unanswered. This list contains the most common complications that arise during surgery.

  • Age
  • Amount of damage or deformity (size of the surgery)
  • Lifestyle risk factors, such as smoking, obesity, and diabetes
  • Overall health
  • Many others

Common Risks and Complications for Spinal Fusion Surgery or Scoliosis Surgery:

(Risks may include the following, but are not limited to:)

BLEEDING – During the procedure, the doctors control bleeding by cauterizing blood vessels and returning any lost blood back to the patient at the end of the surgery.

INFECTION – It is always a risk when the skin is cut. To reduce the risk of infection prior to surgery:

    • Wash with an antiseptic soap and fill and use your prescription for Bactroban® ointment
    • During surgery, patients are given antibiotics before and after surgery
    • Precautions are taken to ensure the operating room is sterile


INJURY TO NERVES – ranging from minor, such as compression of a nerve causing numbness, to major, including paralysis. While the risk of major nerve injury is low, it’s not nonexistent. Please speak to your surgeon if you have concerns. To reduce the risk of injury, the medical staff monitors the electrical nerve activity during surgery and also, gives feedback to the surgeon. This helps the surgeon to make adjustments if needed.

DURAL TEARS – It occurs when the tissue which holds the spinal fluid and nerves (dura) tears, causing spinal fluid to leak. If this happens, you may require bed rest and more rarely, need surgical repair.

FUSION FAILURE – (non-union). Because fusion can take a long time, the results may not be evident for several months or even a few years.  A non-union can lead to persistent back pain, the onset of scoliosis, or implant failure. Revision surgery may occur if there is a failure.



  • Anesthesia side effects
  • Spinal cord injury causing weakness, numbness, paraplegia, paraparesis, bowel and bladder dysfunction Blood clot in arms or legs (deep vein thrombosis), resulting in a pulmonary embolus
  • Blindness
  • Death
  • Ureteral injury and urinoma
  • Impotence
  • Bowel damage

General Complications Explained

Anesthesia Complications

Most spinal operations require general anesthesia. A very small number of patients may have problems with it. These problems can arise from reactions to the use of drugs, other medical conditions you may have, or problems with anesthesia.

Anesthesia affects how the lungs work and can pose problems with lung infections. You can treat nausea and vomiting with medications. In addition, the healthcare specialists insert the tube into your throat and it may cause soreness after surgery. In rare cases, the tube can harm the vocal cords. Please talk to your doctor, scoliosis surgeons, and anesthesiologist about possible complications.


Surgery on the spine involves the risk of unexpected bleeding. Spine surgeries carried out through the abdominal cavity, require the Scoliosis surgeon to move the abdominal aorta and large vessels going to the legs out of the way. Doctors take extra care while performing surgery to avoid harming nearby blood vessels.

Blood Clots

Deep venous thrombosis (DVT) (or thrombophlebitis) is the medical name to describe blood clots that form in the veins of the legs. This is a common problem following many types of surgical procedures. These blood clots form in the large veins of the calf. They may continue to grow and extend up into the veins of the thigh, and in some cases into the veins of the pelvis.

It is true that some people develop DVT even though they have not undergone any recent surgery. But the risk is much higher following surgery-especially surgery involving the pelvis or the lower extremities. There are logical reasons why there is more risk.

The body is trying to stop bleeding associated with surgery, so the body’s clotting mechanism becomes very active during this period. Also injury to blood vessels around the surgical site from normal tugging and pulling during surgery can set off the clotting process. Blood that does not move well sits in the veins and becomes stagnant. If it sits too long in one spot it may begin to clot.

Preventing DVT

The prevention of DVT is a serious matter. Blood clots that fill the deep veins of the legs stop the normal flow of venous blood from the legs back to the heart. This causes swelling and pain in the affected leg.

If the blood clot inside the vein does not dissolve, the swelling may become chronic and can cause permanent discomfort. While the discomfort is unpleasant, the blot clot actually poses a much more serious danger. If a portion of the forming blood clot breaks free inside the veins of the leg, it may travel through the veins to the lung.

There it can lodge itself in the tiny vessels of the lung, cutting off the blood supply to the blocked portion of the lung. This blocked portion cannot survive and may collapse. This is called a pulmonary embolism. If a pulmonary embolism is large enough, and the portion of the lung that collapses is large enough, it can cause death.

Reducing the risk of developing DVT is a high priority following any type of surgery. Preventative measures fall into two categories, mechanical involves getting the blood moving better, and medical involves using drugs to slow the clotting process.


Blood that is moving is less likely to clot. Getting you moving so that your blood is circulating is perhaps the most effective treatment against developing DVT. Once you begin walking, your leg muscles will contract and keep the blood in the veins of the legs moving. But you can still do things while you are in bed to increase the circulation of blood from the legs back to the heart. Simply pumping your feet up and down (like pushing on the gas pedal) contracts the muscles of the calf, squeezes the veins in the calf, and pushes the blood back to the heart. You should do these exercises as often as you can.

Pulsatile stockings are very effective. They are special stockings that wrap around each calf and thigh. A pump inflates them every few minutes, squeezing the veins in the legs and pushing blood back to the heart. Support hose, sometimes called TED hose, are still commonly used following surgery. The hose work by squeezing the veins of the leg shut. This reduces the amount of stagnant blood that is pooling in the veins of the leg and lowers the risk of blood clotting.


Medications that slow down the body’s clotting mechanism can reduce the risk of DVT. They are widely used following surgery on the hip and knee. Usually, doctors use Aspirin in very low-risk situations. Heparin shots may be given twice a day in moderately risky situations. When there is a high risk of developing DVT, several potent drugs are available that can slow the clotting mechanism very effectively.

Physicians can give Heparin by intravenous injection, and a drug known as Lovenox that the medical team members administer twice a day. There are also other drugs that the doctor can prescribe to slow down the clotting mechanism for more than a few days.

In most cases of spinal surgery, both mechanical and medical measures are of great use simultaneously. It has become normal practice to use pulsatile stockings and place patients on some type of medication to slow the blood clotting mechanism. You will get motivation and stimulation to get out of bed as soon as possible and begin exercises immediately after surgery. Southwest Scoliosis Institute will inform you of the procedures helpful for Scoliosis Care for both Dallas, Plano, and Frisco, TX locations. Let us take care of you contact us.

Dural Tear

A watertight sac of tissue (dura mater) covers the spinal cord and the spinal nerves. A complication or tear in this covering can occur during surgery. It is not uncommon to have a dural tear during any type of spine surgery. If any of the medical team members notice a tear during the surgery, they simply repair the tear and it will usually heal uneventfully.

If it remains unrecognized, the tear may not heal and may continue to leak spinal fluid, which can cause problems later. The leaking spinal fluid may cause a spinal headache. It can also increase the risk of infection of the spinal fluid (spinal meningitis). If the dural leak does not seal itself off fairly quickly on its own, a second procedure can repair the tear in the dura.

Lung Problems & Complications

It is important that your lungs are working at their best following surgery to ensure that you get plenty of oxygen to the tissues of the body that are trying to heal. If the lungs are not working properly after surgery, then it might lead to poor blood oxygen levels and even develop pneumonia.

There are several reasons why your lungs may not work normally after surgery. If you were put to sleep with a general anesthetic, the use of medications may temporarily cause the lungs to not function as well as normal. This is one reason that doctors recommend a spinal-type anesthetic whenever possible. Lying in bed prevents completely normal function of the lungs, and the medications you take for pain may cause you to not breathe as deeply as you normally would.

After Surgery

After the surgery, you will need to do several things to keep your lungs working at their best. Your nurse will encourage you to take frequent deep breaths and cough often. Getting out of bed, even upright in a chair, allows the lungs to work much better. You will have permission to get up and into a chair as soon as possible. Respiratory therapists have tools to help maintain optimal lung function.

The incentive spirometer is a small device that measures how hard you are breathing and gives you a tool to help improve your deep breathing. If you have any other lung disease, such as asthma, the respiratory therapist may also use medications that are given through breathing treatments to help open the air pockets in the lungs.


Whenever medical experts perform surgery, there always seems a risk of infection. Surgeons take every precaution to prevent infections. You will get antibiotics right before surgery. Especially if physicians have a plan to use a bone graft, metal screws, or plates in the procedure. Infections occur in less than 1% of spinal surgeries.

An infection can affect the skin incision only, or it can spread deeper to involve the areas around the spinal cord and the vertebrae. A wound infection that involves only the skin incision is quite superficial. It is less serious and easier to treat than a deeper infection. Physicians can treat a superficial wound infection with antibiotics, and perhaps remove the stitches.

Deeper wound infections will probably require an additional procedure to drain the infection. In the worst cases, doctors will remove any bone graft, metal screws, or plates that were used for the surgical procedure. Contact your doctor immediately if you suspect that you have an infection. Some indications of infection include

  • a surgical wound that is red, hot, swollen, and does not heal
  • clear liquid or yellow pus oozing from the wound
  • wound drainage that smells bad
  • increasing pain
  • fever and shaking chills

Persistent Pain

Some spinal operations are simply unsuccessful. One of the most common complications of spinal surgery is that it does not get rid of all of your pain. It is normal that the patient will feel some pain after surgery. If you experience chronic pain well after the operation, you should let your doctor know.

In some cases, the procedure may actually increase your pain. Be aware of this risk before surgery and discuss it at length with your surgeon. He or she will be able to give you some idea of your chances of not getting the relief that you expect.

Nerve Complications

Nerve Injury

Any time surgery is conducted on the spine, there is some risk of injuring the spinal cord, which can lead to nerve damage and complications. The nerves in each area of the spinal cord connect to specific parts of your body. This is why damage to the spinal cord can cause paralysis in certain areas and not others, and therefore, it depends on which spinal nerves have issues or are in poor condition.

Spinal Cord Injury

Operations on the spine have some risk of injuring the spinal cord or spinal nerves. This can occur from instruments that the surgery staff uses during surgery, and can range from swelling to scar formation after surgery. Damage to the spinal cord can cause paralysis in certain areas and not others. Injured nerves can cause pain, numbness, or weakness in the nerve-supplying area.

Sexual Dysfunction

The spinal cord and spinal nerves carry the nerve signals that allow the rest of your body to function and feel sensations. Damage to the spinal cord and the nerves around the spinal cord can cause many problems. If a nerve is damaged that connects to the pelvic region, it may cause sexual dysfunction.

Implant & Fusion Complications

Delayed Union or Nonunion

Based on years of experience, doctors know that a  certain number of fusions will not heal without extra measures.  Some are stubborn and are referred to as “nonunion”. A nonunion may require a second operation to try to get the bones to heal. In addition, some fusions will take a longer healing time than expected. This type of problem case is called a “delayed union”.

Hardware Fracture

Metal screws, plates, and rods are used in many different types of spinal operations as part of the procedure to hold the vertebrae in alignment while the surgery heals. These metal devices are called “hardware”. Once the bone heals, the hardware is not needed but remains in the body. Sometimes the hardware can either break or move from the correct position before healing from the surgical process. This is called a hardware fracture. If this occurs it may require a second operation to either remove or replace the hardware.

Implant Migration

Implant migration describes an intervertebral fusion cage that has moved out of place. When this happens, it usually occurs soon after surgery, before the progression of the healing process to the point where scar tissue/bone growth attaches to the cage. If the cage moves too far, it may not stabilize the two vertebrae. If it moves in a direction towards the spine or large vessels, it may damage those structures. A problem with implant migration may require a second operation to replace the cage that has moved. Your doctor will check the status of the hardware with X-rays taken during your follow-up office visits.


The term “pseudo” means false and “arthrosis” refers to joint. The term “pseudarthrosis” then means a false joint. A surgeon uses this term to describe either a fractured bone that remains untreated or had an unsuccessful fusion. A pseudarthrosis usually means that there is motion between the two bones that doctors need to fuse together for improvement.

There is usually unbearable pain when the vertebrae involved in a surgical fusion do not heal. The pain may increase over time. The spinal motion can also stress the metal hardware that holds the fusion-possibly causing them to break. You may require additional surgery for pseudarthrosis. Your surgeon might want to add more bone grafts, replace the metal hardware, or add an electrical stimulator to try to get the fusion to heal.

Transitional Syndrome

The spine behaves like a chain of repeating segments. When the entire spine is healthy, each segment works together to share the load throughout the spinal column. Each segment works with its neighboring segment to share the stresses that movements and forces impose.

When one or two segments are not working properly, the neighboring segments have to take on more of the load. It is the segment closest to the non-working segment that gets most of the extra stress. This means that if the doctor fuses one or more levels anywhere in the spine, the spinal segment next to where the surgery was carried out begins to take on more stress.

Over time this can lead to an increase in wear and tear to this segment, eventually causing pain to the affected segment. This is known as a transitional syndrome, as it occurs when a transition occurs from a normal area of the spine to a new area that has been fused.

If you or a loved one suffers from spinal pain, you owe it to yourself to call Southwest Scoliosis and Spine Institute at 214-556-0555 to make an appointment.