Chronic Neck Pain After Cervical Fusion Surgery

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chronic neck pain after cervical fusion surgery

Mystery Unveiled: The Hidden Reasons Behind Post-Fusion Neck Pain

At Kaly, we understand how debilitating chronic neck pain can be, especially after undergoing cervical fusion surgery. Our goal is to empower patients like you with the information and resources needed to manage lingering or recurring neck pain post-surgery.

Cervical fusion is a common procedure performed to treat damaged discs or vertebrae in the neck area. During surgery, the orthopedic surgeon fuses together two or more vertebrae using bone grafts and metal implants to stabilize the cervical spine. The goal is to eliminate abnormal motion that contributes to nerve compression and pain.

While fusion surgery often successfully reduces symptoms, some patients continue experiencing chronic neck pain even after the bones have healed. This frustrating outcome can occur for various reasons we’ll explore in this guide. 

We want neck pain sufferers to understand why they may not find complete relief from fusion surgery and what options exist to reduce discomfort going forward.

What Causes Persistent Neck Pain After Cervical Fusion?

Experiencing some postoperative discomfort and tightness is normal as you recover from cervical fusion. But when debilitating neck pain continues longer than expected, it suggests an underlying complication. Here are common culprits of chronic neck pain after surgery:

  • Improper fusion technique – If the vertebrae fail to fuse as intended, the instability and micro-motion can continue irritating nerves and soft tissues. This leads to persistent pain until a revision surgery is performed to fix the nonunion.
  • Adjacent segment disease – Fusing vertebrae increases strain on nearby discs and joints. This added stress can accelerate degeneration above or below the fusion site and cause new symptoms requiring additional surgery.
  • Scar tissue formation – Internal scarring around the surgical site and hardware can compress or tether nerves and muscles, provoking ongoing discomfort and tightness.
  • Hardware irritation – Implants like plates and screws rubbing on soft tissues or bone grafts not fully integrating with vertebrae results in chronic inflammation and pain.
  • Unresolved pre-surgical condition – If the original disc herniation, stenosis, spondylosis or myelopathy causing nerve impingement hasn’t been adequately corrected, neck pain will continue despite fusion.
  • Poor posture/mechanics – Unsupportive cervical collars and lack of physical therapy post-surgery leads to bad neck positioning that strains tissues and prevents proper healing.

Is it normal to have shoulder pain after neck surgery?

Some shoulder and arm soreness is common early on after cervical fusion as you start moving your neck and upper body more during recovery. But severe, persistent shoulder pain can signal a surgical complication requiring evaluation.

When can I expect neck pain to improve after surgery?

It’s normal to have some neck discomfort for 6 to 12 weeks after surgery as your fusion heals. But significant pain persisting beyond 3 months likely indicates a problem requiring imaging tests and treatment.

Signs Your Lingering Neck Pain Needs Evaluation

chronic neck pain after cervical fusion surgery

While some degree of neck stiffness and achiness may linger for weeks after surgery, severe or worsening pain after cervical fusion warrants medical attention. Contact your orthopedic spine surgeon right away if you experience:

  • Sharp, burning neck pain spreading to your shoulders and arms
  • Numbness or tingling in your fingers, hands and wrists
  • Muscle weakness making daily activities difficult
  • Limited range of motion in your neck
  • Headache at the base of your skull

These red flags may indicate a surgical complication like nonunion, herniated disc, spinal instability, bone fracture or hardware failure. Delaying treatment risks permanent nerve damage and disability. Your surgeon will examine the fusion site with x-ray or CT/MRI scans to determine if a revision surgery is needed to resolve your symptoms.

Conservative Ways to Manage Chronic Neck Pain Without Surgery

For those whose lingering pain stems from scar tissue buildup, muscle tightness or minor fusion defects, surgery may not be immediately necessary. Kaly recommends exploring these more conservative pain management therapies first:


  • Over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen sodium to reduce inflammation and discomfort.
  • Muscle relaxers like cyclobenzaprine to loosen neck spasms and improve mobility.
  • Topical creams containing lidocaine, capsaicin or menthol for localized pain relief.
  • Steroid injections like cortisone to decrease nerve irritation and swelling.
  • Low-dose opioid medications as a short-term option for severe neck pain under physician supervision.

Physical Therapy

  • Gentle exercises to improve neck flexibility, range of motion and posture.
  • Heat/ice therapy to ease muscle tension and soreness.
  • Manual techniques like massage and trigger point release performed by a physical therapist.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) for pain modulation.
  • Cervical traction to take pressure off compressed nerve roots.

Complementary Therapies

What helps with neck pain after surgery?

Gentle neck stretches, light resistance exercises, NSAIDs, muscle relaxers, massage therapy, cervical traction, TENS and cortisone injections can help relieve post-surgical neck pain. But worsening or severe pain needs prompt medical attention.

How long does it take for nerve pain to go away after neck surgery?

Nerve-related pain and numbness typically improves within a few weeks after surgery as inflammation decreases and compressed nerves heal. But if severe symptoms persist beyond 6 to 8 weeks, the original nerve impingement may not have been fully corrected.

Surgical Options If Conservative Treatments Fail

chronic neck pain after cervical fusion surgery

If non-surgical measures do not provide adequate pain relief and dysfunction, re-operating on the cervical spine may be warranted. Common revision procedures for recurring neck pain after fusion include:

  • Removing painful hardware – Plates, screws or wires irritating soft tissues are surgically extracted to resolve inflammation.
  • Revising pseudoarthrosis – Failed bone fusion is fixed using larger grafts and implants to stabilize the segments.
  • Adjacent segment fusion – Newly damaged levels above/below index fusion are fused to stop pain originating from these areas.
  • Disc replacement – Artificial cervical disc implanted to decompress nerve roots and restore range of motion at problematic level.
  • Foraminotomy – Narrowed neural foramen causing pinched nerve roots is enlarged by trimming overgrown bone.
  • Laminoplasty – Pressure on the spinal cord is alleviated by reconstructing enlarged spinal canal.

Though reoperations carry more risks like infection and blood loss, they become necessary if chronic neck pain persists despite exhaustive conservative measures.

FAQ About Managing Chronic Neck Pain After Cervical Fusion

Why do I still have neck pain years after ACDF surgery?

Lingering neck pain years after anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) may result from factors like adjacent segment disease, soft tissue scarring, incomplete decompression or spinal instability. Follow up with your surgeon for imaging tests to pinpoint the cause.

Why do I still have neck and shoulder pain after spinal fusion is fully healed?

Fusion taking longer than expected to fully heal can prolong pain. But chronic neck and shoulder discomfort after complete bone fusion often results from factors like improper fusion technique, adjacent segment disease or hardware issues.

Can scar tissue cause neck pain after fusion?

Yes, excessive scar tissue around the surgical site and hardware fusing to soft tissues can directly provoke lasting neck stiffness, spasms and discomfort after fusion surgery. Steroid injections and physical therapy may provide relief.

Can neck pain occur years after spinal fusion?

It’s possible to develop delayed neck pain 5, 10 or even 20 years after cervical fusion due to factors like adjacent segment disease, progressive spinal arthritis and disc degeneration above or below an older fusion site. Proper diagnosis is key to effective treatment.

What helps neck pain after ACDF?

Gentle stretching, postural correction, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants, nerve block injections and complementary therapies like massage and acupuncture can help relieve lingering neck pain after ACDF surgery.

When should I worry about neck pain after surgery?

Contact your surgeon if you experience severe neck pain, muscle weakness, numbness or tingling in your arms and difficulties completing your daily activities. These warning signs may indicate complications needing immediate evaluation and treatment.

Kaly Can Connect You With Specialists for Neck Pain Relief

gentle neck stretches for chronic neck pain after cervical fusion surgery

At Kaly, we aim to provide neck pain sufferers access to top orthopedic spine surgeons, pain management physicians, physical therapists and other specialists critical to maximizing cervical fusion recovery and reducing chronic postoperative discomfort. 

Through our transparent healthcare platform, you can find experienced providers, conveniently book appointments and seamlessly manage your care for optimal outcomes.

Contact us today to start the process of getting connected with neck pain experts dedicated to helping you effectively manage and treat lingering cervical discomfort after fusion surgery. The road to recovery may be long, but you don’t have to travel it alone. We’re here to help you every step of the way.