The Role of Bone Graft in Spinal Fusion Surgery

Peer Reviewed
Bone graft refers to the use of bone in spinal fusion surgery. The purpose of a spinal fusion (arthrodesis) procedure is to link or weld bones together. Many spinal conditions cause instability and/or pain (eg, degenerative disc disease, scoliosis, trauma) and require treatment with a spinal fusion. Spine surgeons can use bone graft to stop motion between two or more vertebral bodies, stabilize a corrected spinal deformity, or repair spinal fractures.
Team of surgeons at work on operating table in hospital Bone graft provides a foundation or scaffold for the patient's body to grow new bone. Photo Source:

Scaffold for New Bone Growth and Spinal Fusion

Bone graft doesn't heal or fuse the spine immediately; instead, bone graft provides a foundation or scaffold for the patient's body to grow new bone. Bone graft can stimulate new bone production. When new bone grows and solidifies, fusion occurs. Although instrumentation (eg, screws, rods) is often used for initial stabilization (post-operative), it is the healing of bone that welds vertebrae together to create long-term stability.
Bone graft can either be structural (it supports the spine, typically in place of a disc or bone that was removed) or onlay, meaning it is a mass of bone fragments that grow together to stabilize the spine and bridge the joint.
There are two general types of bone grafts: real bone and bone graft substitutes. Real bone can come from the patient (autograft) or from a donor bone (allograft).
female and male hip bones show the iliac crestBone may be harvested from one of the patient's iliac crests (pelvic bones) or another source, such as a rib or the spine. Photo Source:

Autograft: The Patient's Bone 

An autograft is transplanted bone taken (called harvesting) from the patient's body. Autograft is considered the gold standard of bone grafts because it contains the patient's bone cells, proteins, and calcified matrix, all of which help to stimulate healing of the fusion. The advantages of autograft include a greater chance for fusion success and negligible risk of disease transmission. A drawback to using autograft is post-operative pain associated with the procedure to harvest the patient's bone.
Bone may be harvested from one of the patient's iliac crests (pelvic bones) or another source, such as a rib or the spine. A bone graft harvesting procedure presents a separate set of surgical risks, including: post-operative pain, nerve injury, or surgical wound problems.
Sometimes, because of these disadvantages and the possibility the patient has poor quality bone, the surgeon decides to use another type of bone graft. Often the surgeon will use local autograft. This is bone that is harvested from the decompression. It is typically bone spurs, lamina, and portions of the spinous process that are removed to decompress the nerves. That same bone can be reused as bone graft to assist with fusion of the decompressed levels.

Allograft: Donor Bone

Allograft is bone from another individual, usually obtained from a tissue bank. Tissue banks are agencies that harvest bone and other tissues from cadavers for medical purposes. In spine surgery, allograft is generally prepared for use by freezing or freeze-drying, which helps to limit the chances of graft rejection. Allograft bone does not contain living bone cells and therefore is not as effective at stimulating fusion compared to autograft bone. But, often, it is sufficient.

Tissue banks screen donors, oversee bone recovery, test and sterilize donations, and store it for use. Many tissue banks are accredited by the American Association of Tissue Banks. The US Food and Drug Administration has regulations about human cell and tissue processing that includes rules about donor eligibility. These practice guidelines help to reduce the risk of tissue contamination and the spread of disease.

What is a Bone Graft Substitute? 

Bone graft substitutes are man-made or a manipulated version of a natural product. As an alternative to autograft and allograft, they are generally safe and can provide a foundation for the patient's body to produce its own bone. Bone graft substitutes share similar properties with human bone including a porous structure and/ or proteins to stimulate healing.

Demineralized Bone Matrix (DBM) 

Demineralized bone matrix is allograft bone that has undergone a process whereby the mineral content has been removed. Demineralization helps to expose bone-forming proteins (collagen, growth factors) hidden within the bone structure that can stimulate healing. DBM is usually considered a bone graft extender rather than a replacement because its ability to fuse the human spine alone is not proven. DBM can be mixed with regular bone to obtain more graft volume and is available in chip, granule, gel, powder, or putty forms.

Ceramic-based Bone Graft Extenders 

These include calcium phosphate, calcium sulfate, and bioactive glass. These ceramic-based products are also best used in combination with other sources of bone because they contain a calcium matrix for fusion, but no cells or proteins to stimulate the process. Ceramic-based products do not present a risk for disease transfer, but may occasionally cause inflammation. These products are available in porous and mesh forms.

Bone Morphogenetic Protein (BMP)

There are different types of bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) that are used to stimulate new bone growth. These proteins are found in trace amounts in human bone and are producted in larger amounts by means of genetic engineering. Depending on the the type of spine surgery a patient undergoes, BMP may be considered an option to promote new bone growth and healing that leads to fusion.
Updated on: 09/10/19
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