Infection - Any surgery involving an incision in the skin can become infected. In addition, the bone graft and area around the spine may become infected. An infection will usually require some type of antibiotic medication to treat the infection. If the infection involves the bone, it may require one or more additional operations to drain the infection. The risk of infection is probably less than one percent.
Blood Vessel Damage - There are large arteries and veins that travel through the neck into the brain. The carotid artery and the jugular vein are nearby. It is possible to damage these blood vessels during the surgery. Again, it is extremely unlikely that this will occur, probably less than one in a thousand.
Nerve Damage - There are nerves in the neck that travel along the area where the incision is made to perform an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion. These nerves go to the vocal chords. There is the possibility that these nerves can be damaged during surgery. This can lead to hoarseness. If this occurs, it will usually recover unless the nerve is permanently damaged or cut. Again, this is unlikely.
Spinal Cord Damage - Operations that are performed on the cervical spine out of necessity place the spinal cord at risk for injury. Spinal cord damage is probably much more likely in the larger, more serious operations such as the corpectomy and strut grafting procedures. These are complex, difficult operations and are done for extremely serious problems that are unlikely to respond to any other type of treatment.
The routine anterior discectomy and fusion is a common operation that is extremely safe. While damage to the spinal cord is possible, it is highly unlikely.
Graft Displacement - One of the more common problems that can occur after an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion is that the bone graft may move out of position. If it moves too much, it may require a second operation to place a new bone graft in its place.
Non-Union - In spite of a successful operation and good bone graft, a fusion may not occur between the vertebrae. This is termed a non-union. Usually your surgeon will be able to tell if a fusion has occurred by looking at X-rays taken over a three to six month period following the surgery. If a fusion does not occur and you have no pain, a second operation will not be necessary. If you continue to have pain, and a non-union is diagnosed after surgery, your surgeon may suggest a second attempt at fusion. When trying for the second time after a failed fusion, most surgeons will usually include some type of internal fixation, such as a plate and screws.