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Minimally Invasive TLIF (Transforaminal Lumbar Interbody Fusion)

For some patients with serious spondylolisthesis, degenerative disc disease, or nerve compression with associated low back pain, fusion surgery is the treatment of choice. Fusion surgery involves joining or fusing two or more vertebrae together. PLIF and TLIF are two different types of fusion surgery that can be effective treatments for these conditions.

PLIF versus TLIF
Posterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion (PLIF) is a common surgical technique used to treat the conditions mentioned above. In this procedure, bone graft, or a bone graft substitute, is placed between vertebrae in order to fuse them and create a stronger and more stable spine. The bone graft is inserted into the disc space from the back (posterior). In addition, spinal instrumentation such as screws and rods are used to hold the spine in position and help promote successful fusion.

In recent years, many surgeons have begun to use a TLIF procedure (Transforaminal Lumbar Interbody Fusion) in preference to a PLIF. A TLIF can accomplish the same goals as a PLIF procedure. However, in TLIF the surgeon inserts the bone graft into the disc space from the side. This results in the nerve roots being moved less during the procedure, as compared to a PLIF, and may reduce the risk of scarring or damaging the nerve roots.

Open Versus Minimally Invasive
Traditionally, TLIF has been performed as an "open" technique, which requires making a larger incision along the middle of the back. Through this incision, the surgeon then cuts away, or retracts, spinal muscles and tissue to access the vertebrae and disc space. The cutting and retracting of muscle and tissue is part of the reason that after the operation, patients are faced with a long recovery period of several weeks or months.

Today there is a minimally invasive TLIF technique that is proving to be an effective alternative to "open" fusion surgery. In a minimally invasive TLIF, the surgeon inserts a small tube through the skin until it "rests" on the spine. Using special surgical instruments the surgeon then does the entire TLIF procedure through the tube. Working through the small tube, instead of a larger "open" incision, greatly reduces the amount of muscle and tissue that is cut or retracted. Blood loss is dramatically reduced. These minimally invasive benefits also lead to shorter hospital stays and quicker patient recovery times.

A Recent Study
A recent study of 49 minimally invasive TLIF operations has shown excellent results. This study included 19 men and 30 women. Forty-five of the patients suffered from both mechanical low back pain (related to the body's movement) and radicular pain (from pinched nerve roots) in their legs. The remaining patients had low back pain alone. Eleven of these patients had had previous surgeries at the same levels of the spine.

After their procedures, all 45 patients with both back and leg pain reported improvement of their symptoms. The four patients with mechanical low back pain alone reported a decrease in their pain. In addition, 18 months after their surgeries, all of these patients had solid, successful fusions. The average hospital stay for these patients was 1.9 days. The patients seemed to have less post-operative pain than for an open procedure, with narcotic pain relief medications discontinued 2-4 weeks post-operatively.

Case Study - Meet Ray
Ray is a 55-year old man who suffered with severe low back and leg pain from spondylolisthesis and spinal stenosis at L4-5. Figure 1 shows the spondylolisthesis (forward slippage of L4 on L5, arrow) and Figure 2 shows the spinal stenosis (small spinal canal, center arrow).

spondylolisthesis at L4-L5
Figure 1. Spondylolisthesis

spinal stenosis
Figure 2. Spinal Stenosis

Updated on: 06/02/10
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Minimally Invasive TLIF

Although still being studied, the use and effectiveness of minimally invasive transforaminal lumbar interbody fusion (TLIF) seems to be very promising.
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